In Comedy of Terrors, the fan favorite Garfield: Homecoming team of writer Scott Nickel and Antonio Alfaro reunite for a frighteningly fun Halloween tale, as a creature reaches through the television and into Jon’s living room. Luckily, Garfield is as brave as they come…oh, wait.
And in The Fall Season, Eisner Award winning writer Mark Evanier (Groo) and artist Dave Alvarez (Looney Tunes) show just what happens when Garfield and the gang head out to an audition for a new reality show. But Garfield’s idea of reality might not be exciting enough for these devious television producers! (official synopsis via Bleeding Cool)
Way back in the dim, dark comic-infested days of my youth – oh who am I kidding? Those day never ended; well the comic book reading, not so much the youth – one of the comic strips I devoured was Garfield.
True, it was no Peanuts, which remains the gold standard for me and so many others, but it was dependably amusing, a little cynical and a great diversion when all you needed was a quick laugh.
But in the years since, Garfield and I parted ways, as my comic strips tended towards cleverer fare like Calvin and Hobbes, Mutts, Pearls Before Swine and Get Fuzzy, and Jon’s sarcastic pet lost his appeal.
But a new comic book issue from BOOM! Studios may change all that, if but for the time it takes me to read it, with two brand-new adventures giving Garfield a whole new Halloween lease on life and me a reacquaintance with my old comic strip pal.
It is a rare thing indeed to stumble across a character, and the world they and similarly-enchanting people and creatures inhabit, that remind you of the very best things you read when you were a child.
If you’re an occasional pop culture nostalgist, someone like me who loves and appreciates the cartoons & comics, music, books and TV of their childhood but is just as firmly-situated, if not more so, in the present such is your love of discovering the new and the different, you’ll fall in love as I did with Hilda, a series of graphic novels by British artist Luke Pearsonwho is also responsible for storyboarding episodes of the just-finished cartoon series Adventure Time‘s fifth and seventh seasons.
The appeal of Hilda, if you’re a little older than the likely core demographic of Hilda like yours truly, is that evokes the lovely sentiments, quirky sensibilities and lusciously-original world building of comic and book series such as the Moomins, Agaton Sax and Asterix, while still being gloriously and delightfully itself.
Evocative of worlds and characters past most certainly, but no means beholding to or derivative of them, Hilda, the story of an unusually, wonderfully curious and caring young girl in a fantastically magically-real alternate late 20th-century Scandinavia, is idiosyncratically-charming on every level.
It is impossible not to like Hilda a great deal since she embodies so many things that seem to be out of vogue in our more cut-throat, neo-capitalist, end justifies the means world right now.
Not that Hilda is evenly faintly political or polemic; on the contrary there’s a refreshing escapist quality to the series that takes you far away from your troubles and cares while still managing to zero in beautifully on what its like to be a kid, and yes, the mum who constantly worries where her daughter might be even as she gifts her (mostly) with the time, freedom and space to live a wondrously, expansively extraordinary life.
And the life that Hilda leads, whether it’s out in the woodlands where her grandfather built a wood cabin or in the city of Trollberg, is as wondrous as it gets.
That’s thanks in part to Hilda’s inclusive and inquisitive spirit which though possessing the potential for being scared and uncertain like all of us, is far more prone to assuming and living out the best in ways that many of us aspire to but never quite achieve.
Inspired by Scandinavian folklore, Pearson has placed Hilda’s uniquely-adventurous personage into a world inhabited by elf cities, that are, amusingly, only visible to those who are of good heart and have signed the necessary paperwork – they may be small and magical but they have their bureaucracy and it must be obeyed; well, until the kid is save from a mountain made of a giant person and then all bets are off – and migrating fluffy and furry flying dog-like creatures called Woffs and trolls who turn to rock in the daytime (and from which the city takes it name), and sea spirits and wandering giants and … well, you get the idea.
It’s a magically real and Hilda, open to the new, the unusual and the different, and always working on the assumption that something is good before she decides its not – true that doesn’t extend to trolls who are kinda scary until it kind of does – revels in it all becoming friends with pretty much everyone, one of the many qualities her mother, and no doubt dog Twig, love about her.
The thing is, for all her loveliness and sweetness, Hilda never once feels unbearably twee or impossibly, nauseatingly cute; that’s because Pearson imbues the entire series with a down-to-earth realism and sense of authenticity that makes it feel enchantingly real from the word go.
From the simple but evocative image of the cabin that opens the first book, Hilda and the Troll, through the giant-reuniting, elf-militant narrative of Hilda and the Midnight Giant (he’s such lonely and in love everyone) through to the move to Trollberg that fills the last three books, Hilda and the Bird Parade (quirky, amnesic giant bird anyone?), Hilda and the Giant Hound where appearance are definitely deceptive, and Hilda and the Stone Forest where spare-space dwelling Nisse (domestic sprites who inhabit buildings) take you into magically-terrifying realms behind your dresser drawers, Hilda’s is a fully-formed, amazing world you will want to live in for as long as possible, and return to whenever the opportunity permits you.
If you have even a skerrick of the wonder of childhood left percolating in the calcified adult soul you now presumably sport, and you’re longing to let your inner child do their thing unhindered once again, free to indulge imagination, the best of impulses, and unconditional friendship without question, you will adore Hilda.
There is not a moment of this lavishly and vividly-illustrated and wonderfully written series that you won’t have you champing at the bit to go and draw rocks out where the trolls live and woffs fly whimsically overhead, to spend your days becoming friends with a wood man (one of the few times Hilda acts petulantly and with unreasonable assumption only to be proven wrong; the good thing there? She admits, unlike most of us, and move happily on) and help you and your mum find your way home from a maze filled with trolls, good and bad.
It is all the dreams, musings and daydreams of childhood sprung mischievously and charmingly to life, infused with humour and wonder, and a groundedness that makes it all feel very real even as you realise it is not, and don’t care anyway.
Hilda’s world is in many ways quite ordinary in that she has to go to school, observe curfews and deal with other kids who have lost, if they ever had it, extravagantly-expansive view of the world and spend time with her mostly cool mum (who, thankfully, acts like a mum out of love and a genuine sense of wanting her daughter to be the best Hilda she can be) but Pearson weaves the utterly extraordinary through it in such a way that the appearance of all these folkloric creatures feels entirely normal and natural.
Hilda is your ticket to the childhood of yore, or perhaps you’re still there or barely out of it and don’t want to let it go just yet – why let it go at all? Hilda makes a case for keeping that exuberant sense of wonder with you all life long – a gorgeously, visually-lush, imaginatively-unfettered and magically real where kindness and thinking the best of others isn’t out of date or something weak and twee but robust and real, the stuff of everyday adventures that have not forgotten there is magic and connection to be found everywhere if you’re open to it.
Hilda is now an equally-beguiling cartoon series on Netflix.
But not it appears in RuinWorld by Derek Laufman, where cities are few and declining, brigands abound, artifacts are scarce and worth their magical weight in gold, and not if you’re Rex, a half cat/half fox Ruin Hunter who is saddled with the lovably incompetent Pogo, a pig who dreams of glory but falls manifestly short pretty much every time.
Oh, and throw in monster spiders, giant slugs – pro tip: “If they get ahold of you just let them eat you; the alternative is worse.” – and tenacious squid demons summoned by a spell from a mage’s book that is clearly in the wrong hands (yes, that would be Pogo – how’d you guess?) who are determined to drag you … well, best not to think about that, just kill them.
Which Rex does, and while he threatens to kill Pogo, to whom he owes a debt after the enthusiastically inept pig’s mum sheltered him on her farm after he fell out of favour with the powers that be, for unleashing the beast, he never actually follows through.
I mean, how could you? Pogo may be dumb as a, well, village pig, but he’s staunchly loyal, keen and a great believer in the magic of wooden staffs that aren’t, as it turns out, actually magical. (Shhh, don’t tell him; oh wait, too late.)
Besides, all that squid demon-unleashing and ruined keep-investigating has a rich payoff – a treasure map that leads the way to – GASP! – the fabled treasure trove of Rygone the Dark Pirate, full to the brim with 100 years of plunder from temples aplenty.
All they have to do is find the Temple of Kuloo and it’s theirs.
The problem is they keep losing the map – first to an opportunistic scavenger called Barri, an insect who is given a surprisingly affecting backstory – one of the standouts of this epically fun series is Laufman’s attention to character detail which pays off with way more emotional resonance that you might expect from a cute, five-part fantasy adventure comic – and then to Fargus the wolf and his criminal gang who see a highly-promising chance for one last big score.
Adding to the difficulty is the fact that GPS has yet to be invented in this medieval world, which has definitely seen far better days, and you have one of those adventures that you’d be far better not actually going on at all.
But hey Rex is desperate and Pogo is super-keen, something picked up by the third member of their party, a chipmunk named Kale, who is a consummate fighter, gambler and all-round badass and who manages to nail the fact that the two would-be treasure hunters may, and I stress may, be in need of a little help:
REX: “Desperate? We’re not desperate! I’ve simply come to offer you the opportunity of a lifetime. As a favor [sic], for old times’ sake–“ KALE: “Cut the bull dung, Rex. You two are oozing desperation! Just look at ya. Those rags you call clothes tells me you have NO money. That tree branch and twig you two are sporting shows me a desperate need for weapons … and by the looks of your robust companion, it’s very clear to me, Rex, that you have hit rock bottom in your ruin hunting career and you’re badly in need of an experienced partner. Does that sound about right? POGO: “Wow, she’s good.” REX: “Shut it, Pogo!”
Desperate they may be, and taken captive, well Pogo anyway, by the frog king of the Dengus Isles, but boy they sure how to make a sucky adventure work.
Or worse; honestly it’s hard to say.
What can be said with complete certainty is the Laufman has gifted us with characters so delightfully flawed – there’s no real hero here; just a bunch of struggling animals trying to catch a break in a land perilously short of them – that you want to spend as much as possible with them.
The banter between Rex and Pogo, in fact between all the characters is a pleasure to read, witty, fun and flowing with barely an awkward moment; every exchange crackles with the comedic vivacity of a finely-honed sitcom, with every character possessed of razor-sharp, side-splittingly funny comic timing.
In many ways it reminds me of the warmth and silly fun of Asterix, the famously clever French comic which snaps, crackles and pop with the same amazing energy, the same richly-wrought characters and formidably good world-building.
RuinWorld is, of course, its own marvellously immersive creation, benefiting from Laufman’s masterful world-building which springs to life, as if fully-formed, from the word go.
With no preamble, we’re plunged straight into the action, unencumbered by laboriously-delivered exposition or hamfisted set-ups, Rex and Pogo bantering from the word go, the land around them a living, breathing decrepit entity that has its own flavour, personality and sense of self and is a joy to inhabit.
It looks amazing too, all bright colours, luscious landscapes (even the ruined desert ones) and luxuriant scenes, awash in distinct cultures, a Zootopia-n anthropomorphic world with worlds that feels as if it’s always existed and likely always will … well perhaps not since it has seen, as noted, far better days, and who knows how much longer it will teeter on for? (A while I hope.)
With only five issues in the series, the time we’ll have with RuinWorld, at least in its Kaboom! incarnation is likely to be all-too-brief; thankfully you can catch all the RuinWorld action at Tumblr, where the writer & artist talks about his creation’s humble social media-driven beginnings, and Derek Laufman’s own site.
What we do have in the three issues available to date is a gorgeously original comic series, that recalls some famous comic antecedents but is very much its own pleasurable piece of witty, clever fun that proves beyond a doubt that adventures are really only good, treasure maps in your possession notwithstanding, if you have good friends at your side, and an amazingly captivating world in which they can happen.
Life can be scary when you’re taken away from everything you’ve ever known.
Hilda, the star of an acclaimed graphic novel seriesby Luke Pearson and now a gorgeous-looking whimsical new animated show on Netflix, knows a thing or two about what that feels like as IO9 explains:
“In the first trailer for Netflix’s Hilda, we meet Hilda, her mother, and the lush world they live in, where giants, trolls, and dandelion-like dog creatures are anything but uncommon. But when the family is forced to move to the city, Hilda soon discovers that there are still all kinds of adventures to embark upon—and that the mystical world exists beyond the forest.”
Hilda’s world, which is already pretty magically big and expansive gets even bigger after her move to Trollberg where she discovers there is so much more to the world that she could have ever imagined.
The animation looks absolutely wondrous, the storytelling as escapistly lovely as you could want and Hilda’s exuberant embrace of everything new and amazing, no matter how out of the box it seems is a joy to watch.
I have a feeling being with Hilda will indeed be the best place ever, and we can find out just how good it can be when Hilda premieres on Netflix on 21 September.
As cases of mistaken identity go, The Weatherman is a glorious technicolour-fabulous doozy.
Well, mistaken in the mind of the weatherman himself, Nathan Bright, outrageously fun, good-naturedly lovable bad boy of Martian news some 750 years in the future where Mars and Venus are heavily-populated outposts of the human race.
He can, in the eyes of his viewers at least do no wrong.
Witty, cavalier and able to spin his persona on a wisecracking dime, Bright is the kind of guy who can sleep in, barely make it to the studio in time for a broadcast and somehow make through the whole messy business unscathed.
Lesser mortals would be looking for a new career or job opportunity but Nathan? Roguishly, charmingly Teflon-coated, a man with a life to envy, a girlfriend in the making and a dog named Sadie who does what every faithful hound should do and loves her master unreservedly with bark-heavy delight, no, Nathan merrily skips along as happy-go-lucky and full of cheeky bravura as ever.
But then everything goes terribly wrong, a departure from a garrulously-enjoyable script that leaves Bright flatfooted and scrambling, badly as it turns out to recover – everyone’s favourite weatherman is accused of playing a key role in wiping 18 billion of the face of the earth, a revelation that comes on the 7th anniversary of the attack which is commemorated by solemn, speech-heavy political posing and demonstrations of furious frustration by still griefstricken population on Mars.
If there was a good time to be accused of mass murder and really there isn’t is there, this is most definitely not it.
Like any tale of supposedly mistaken identity – Nathan Bright says he isn’t the worst mass murderer in history; a phalanx of quite violent people bent on either retribution or stopping the next rumoured attack beg to differ and with extreme prejudice – The Weatherman starts off sunny and bright (puns most definitely intended) with writer Jody Leheup beautifully-timing the moment when everything goes unexpectedly to crap.
She manages that magical trick of making Nathan just likeable enough not to be arrogantly dislikable, full of fun-loving swagger but vulnerable enough that when the proverbial really hits the fan, that he, like us, is wondering just what the hell is going on.
We do know more of course, thanks to Leheup’s expertly-revealed exposition which glides organically into the narrative barely upsetting its not-too-fast, not-too-slow flow, but watching Nathan grapple, and epically grapple he does when the cockiness that is his well-worn polished patina slips away and he finally comprehends that the people who’ve taken him, and others who are after him, are most definitely not kidding around.
Not even a little bit.
Weaving in poignant elements of 9/11 commemorations, a lingering collective grief that is just under the surface for pretty much everyone all of the time, and a raging sense by the terror cell responsible for the massacre on Earth, Sword of God, which believes in the way of fanatics everyone that they are alone are able to “save us from ourselves!” and you have a insightfully robust story that grips at the start with the shiny lightheartedness of its lead character, blissfully unaware of what lies ahead, and draws you compulsively still further at every step, with revelation after revelation, action set piece after emotionally-charged moment.
It’s brilliantly and affectingly executed, with just enough comedy, coming from guess who, to leaven out the reality of a solar system muddied in its marched to a gloriously technologically-enabled future by a terrorist cell hellbent on derailing it permanently.
Sound like our blighted present much?
The other masterstroke of this wholly well-executed series is the way Leheup neatly balances narrative momentum with the big reveals.
There’s no Lost syndrome at work here, that gnawingly annoying place where not enough is revealed, leaving you wondering what they hell is going on, or more accurately why the hell it’s all happening.
It’s good we’re given quite bit of background and explanation early on since The Weatherman dives almost straight into some fairly intense storytelling that would have been depleted in its impact somewhat if we’d been left guessing about things.
Having said that Leheup doesn’t then make the cardinal mistake of telling us too much, so awash in revelatory exposition that the tension and sense of expectation is leached out like a loads of clothing left in a tubful of bleach.
At the risk of sounding too Goldilocks and the Three Bears-ian, the narrative positioning of this exquisitely well-coloured series, which is colourful when Bright is in his garrulous, unscathed ascendancy, and more muted when everything goes pear-shaped, is just right, making it a pleasure to read.
The good thing about reading three issues at a trot if you get a good chance of whether all these positive attributes are a one-issue wonder or they have narrative legs; the good news is that The Weatherman is consistently, entertainingly good, a brilliant addition to the “What the hell just happened to my life” genre of existentially-seismic storytelling that will keep you utterly beguiled from start to, well, whatever the finish will be.
I have high expectations it will be very good indeed.
There is a tendency in apocalyptic literature to go for the frenetic juggler narrative-wise.
Given the scenarios usually at play, this is reasonably understandable since we’re generally talking epic fights for survival and not a stroll in the park on Sunday.
The problem with going hard and big, a syndrome that afflicts shows like The Walking Dead, either positively or negatively depending on your vantage point, is that a great deal of the nuance that could really make a story set in an apocalyptic landscape is lost.
This is important because even in tales that take place in worlds beset by some world-ending nightmare or another, people are still people and not everything occurs in finale-producing fashion.
Daybreak, a wholly original and imaginatively-executed graphic novel from Brian Ralph (Cave-in) understands this dynamic all too well, delivering up a story which acknowledges the gravity of the setting – earth lost to the undead with much of the world in unexplained ruins (was it bombing to stop them? General decay over time? We’re never told but honestly, it doesn’t matter, it’s just there) – but lets the raw humanity of the characters drive the story.
In fact, the zombies, who are unnervingly more active and faster at night when survivors are at an obvious disadvantage, aren’t ever front or centre in the action, though they are, for obvious reasons, one of the key narrative drivers.
Rather, what we see the most of are the survivors – both the one-armed, nameless and endlessly cheerful guy who does all the talking and you the reader as the rescued survivor who is never pictured but who becomes part of a team with the plucky man who lifts you out of harm’s way.
The brilliance of Daybreak, a clever title with many reference points the most obvious being the point at which the destroyed landscape that is what’s left of civilisation, is that it manages to craft a compelling, propulsive story out of a slow-burning, never-rushed series of events that owe as much to our innate humanity as they to the animalistic undead who are a constant threat throughout the book.
In so doing it avoids the trap of so many apocalyptic thrillers that prioritise action over character development, epic moments of truth over small but vital moments of humanity, offering up a story that matters because the people in it matter.
They matter a great deal in fact, granting us a window into a world with little to no set-up, which is ravaged and full of loss and deprivation but also, as our plucky, resourceful rescuer makes clear, all kinds of opportunities and possibilities for hope if you know where to look for them.
Daybreak‘s masterful ability to quietly and without unnecessary fuss balance the big apocalyptic moments with the smaller day-by-day developments that ultimately have more impact for our survivors is one key reason why the novel works so well.
Sure, many people area nasty bunch of self-interested Darwinian-type fiends or just plain mad and lost in their own inability to sanely process the insane events around them, with the only other character in the book representing that all too common type of broken survivor, but there are also those who still see value in helping and uplifting others.
It’s a reassuring thread true but it is also realistic, and as the companionship builds between rescuer and rescued, and events build and build in both threat and unpalatable realisation, you are drawn into the idea that life may be bleak and awful in one sense but that there remains the ability for the world to be nourishing and hopeful too.
So well does Daybreak draw both the horror and the hope, often in the same scenes, that you can’t help but become invested in the lives of everyone in the book.
Even the deranged old man who causes them so much trouble that he triggers a turn for the worse for all parties, comes equipped with enough humanity that you can’t help but feel for him; after all, who among us wouldn’t find ourselves tempt with an easy slide into madness when faced with the loss of pretty much everything and everyone we have ever held dear.
Ralph is at every turn a concise and elegantly-gripping storyteller, a writer and illustrator who understands the deleterious effects that would plague the human psyche in an apocalyptic world, but also appreciates that for all the nightmare and horror, there is also the capacity for the best part s of the human spirit to prevail, even when by rights there should no sign of them.
The ending is a thing of heartbreaking beauty, holding the balance taut between bestiality and humanity, loss and gains, bleakness and hope, and reminding us that even in the very worst of times, and there are plenty of them in Daybreak, that the best of times are also possible, and very much still a part of the fabric of human existence.
Depending on where and who you are, Cannons Cove is either the site of your greatest, fondest childhood memories or a backwater with little to offer but boring jobs and creative nothingness.
For fans of The Gloomies, an iconic film that defined many peoples’ childhoods, including dismissive uber-fans who come to town blaring the soundtrack and demanding to have their nostalgic impulses gratified at every turn, it’s some kind of nirvana, a return to a kindler, simpler, more, ah, foggy time.
But if you’re from Cannons Cove, so named because ships with cannons got sunk there by pirates – some literal naming going on there! – such as the Sheriff’s daughter Wilder who works at a drive-thru coffee shop, it’s the end of the known universe with not much to offer it.
Her friends are a little more upbeat – Karma, a New Age devotee whose simple joy and ditzy optimism is a joy, Macy, who works at the town’s museum and plays in an electropunk feminist noise duo with her brother Todd, and Dot, whose mum is the local librarian and who is the font of all knowledge (and a channeler of dead pirate spirits but that’s a whole other story).
Despite their totally different outlooks on life, these four, fast friends, which also include their friend Ed, are the beating, impetuous heart of Misfit City by writers Kiwi Smith and Kurt Lustgarten (Legally Blonde and 10 Things I Hate About You) and artist Naomi Franquiz, a comic strip from BOOM! BOX that is equal parts growing pains, treasure hunt and dissection of small town life and its rewards and limitations.
What makes Misfit City pop from the word go, and there’s an undeniable energy and brio to the story from the first panel, is how vivacious, alive and beautifully fully-formed the characters are.
We meet Wilder in almost the very first panel, and it’s clear that she’s is none-too-happy about being stuck in the less-than-stellar environs of Cannons Cove.
She wears a perpetual sense of ennui and sighs are almost second nature to her – much of this could be slated home to the fact that she’s your typical older teenager, still trying to figure out her place in the world, but you suspect she’s also the kind of person who will grab the first chance to dash from Cannons Cove and never return.
Still for now she’s stuck there, and we know thanks to the inspired-writing, just how little she likes being a resident of a place where the height of the social calendar is the annual Shucks Fair (not so great if you don’t like oysters, seafood or electropunk feminist noise duos).
She is but one of the finely-etched characters who give Misfit City a real sense of playful vivacity and engrossing likeability, a trait that goes a clear factor many degrees when Captain Denby’s treasure map falls out of the trunk he donates to the town’s museum upon his passing.
What looks at first like a lark, a fun diversion for the group of friends from the tedium of small town life and being bullied at school for not being one of the cool kids – both the scornful oppressors, dismissive The Gloomies fans and Denby’s kids who want the map for themselves are more trope-heavy than original but they serve their purpose well – soon becomes, in the tradition of all grand adventures, to be much more than that.
Of course, being only a little older than the kids who made The Gloomies such a fun cinematic romp, Wilder, Macy, Karma, Dot and Ed, don’t full appreciate what it is they’re walking, or rather sneaking into, at first.
It’s not until people start getting hit on the head, surprised in darkened mansions and caught out on tribal islands in a howling gale that they come to appreciate that what they see as a diverting excursion is actually a do-or-die effort for many other people, all of whom get introduced throughout the story in much the same way old movie serials did, for maximum effect and cliffhanger potential.
In fact, the volume, which gathers together the first four issues in the series, ends on the mother of all grand reveals and you just know, if you haven’t been keeping up with the unfurling series like yours truly, that volume 2 must be in your hands forthwith and henceforth or you will spend all kinds of agonising time wondering what on earth is going to happen next.
In many ways Misfit City is light and fluffy, a breezy fun-filled adventure that doesn’t take itself too seriously; certainly you can see the thematic imprint of a thousand teen stories that have gone before in its sometimes trope-ish narrative.
But that is by no means a negative because Smith and Lustgarten know how to use these tropes and use them brilliantly well, imbuing their story with emotional resonance, the very real search for life meaning that is common to teenagers (and not a few adults) and the need all of us have to be part of something bigger than ourselves.
The fact that they throw of all these substantial elements into the mix, and still emerge with a bright, fun and thoroughly engaging story speaks to how well the writers do what they do.
The artwork too is a pleasure, detailed, colourful, dour when needed and popping in every panel, accenting the storyline while never dominating it, proving how good a team Smith, Lustgarten and Franquiz make (with beautiful colouring by Brittany Peer).
As comic strips go, Misfit City is up among the best, giving up us characters that matter, a story that has you roped in from the word go, a compelling sense of time and place, and the ability to weave in all kinds of issues without once feeling heavy-handed, and always a pleasure to read and lose yourself in on a rainy afternoon when a treasure hunt might indeed be a fun diversion.
Mutts, a delightfully retro, self-aware comic strip by Patrick McDonnell is not your usual humourous newspaper diversion.
First published in 1994, and described by the immortally-great Charles M. Schulz (Peanuts) as “one of the best comic strips of all time”, Mutts has always had a keenly-felt beating heart at the centre of its storytelling.
The willingness of McDonnell to be sweet and adorable, unashamedly heart-on-the-sleeve in an age of cynical standoffishness has paid handsome dividends, not only giving us two avowedly cute (but sassy and clever into the bargain) protagonists in Mooch, a cat, and Earl, a dog – their respective humans, Millie and Frank and Ozzie, though loving and attentive play a background role to the furry stars of the show – but a vehicle through which he can promote a variety of animal-friendly causes, including environmental awareness, conservation, animal adoption and the necessity of giving every pet an expansive love that knows no bounds (because they will most assuredly give it back, without question).
This willing, unconditional loveliness is on full, gloriously-affecting display in the small festive tome, Mutts: A Shtinky Little Christmas, where Mooch and Earl come to the rescue of a long kitten in the snow named Jules, who they rename Shtinky Puddin’ because, well, why not? (Shtinky, the spelling of whose faux-name reflects Mooch’s appealing lisp, loves tigers, and naturally their preservation in the wild, is a recurring character in McDonnell’s artfully-crafted world.)
It’s adorable, as is just about everything about this story which unapologetically, and thank goodness for that, pulls on every seasonal heartstring possible, giving us a story of two animals, and their humans, rescuing Shtinky not once but twice – let’s just say Mooch is a tad neglectful as one critical juncture – come to the salvation of another, and in the process giving us a seasonal tale about giving up our own comfort and wellbeing for the sake of others.
The book is not long, and more like an elongated comic strip than anything (this is not even remotely a bad thing; simply a format description) but in its short running time, we’re treated to a heartwarmingly, redemptive story that sends an important message about looking after the fellow furry creatures we share the planet with.
We even meet Santa Claus too who, along with having a big warm sack full of milk and cookies, scoops up Mooch, Earl and Shtinky from the dubious care of an unseeing snowman in a blizzard, depositing them safely home where love and belonging really lies.
We all know life can be cruel and unpredictable but just as he does in Mutts each and every single day, McDonnell reminds us in A Shtinky Little Christmas that what makes our time here on earth so worthwhile and meaningful is giving and sharing to others, no matter the personal cost, especially if it’s to creatures, and yes, people, far more vulnerable than us.
The cultural environment in which we watch a film inevitably shapes our response to it. Engaging with the Yuletide ecology by watching Christmas films offers a genuine cinephilic pleasure, be it kitsch, ironic, or sincere.
The following taxonomy is by no means exhaustive – there are far too many Christmas films to mention – but should present a sufficient overview to keep one’s viewing-December occupied, should one so wish it, with cinematic and televisual fare ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime.
Ho, ho, ho.
Classic Christmas Films
This is not (necessarily) because they used to make better films in the old days, but simply because old popular cultural products that are still being commercially tapped tend to be (comparatively) pretty good. We don’t read Dickens because people were better writers in the 19th century, but because Dickens was one of the great ones of the period, even if for every Dickens there were hundreds of duds, rightfully now out of print.Classical Hollywood cinema offers the most refined, and in many ways the most aesthetically pleasurable, Christmas films.
Likewise, we don’t watch the 1938 version of Dickens’s A Christmas Carolbecause films were better in the 1930s, but because this particular film is excellent.
Black and white film, furthermore, evokes a nostalgic ambience that enhances the sentimentality that makes Christmas movies such prolific producers of warm and fuzzy gut-reactions.
Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) is the most canonised of the classic Christmas movies, appearing as the Christmas movie of choice in several films and TV specials – including a memorable episode of Beverly Hills 90210 – and it certainly warrants multiple Yuletide viewings.
Gloria Grahame is excellent in a minor role as Violet, and James Stewart as George Bailey does his usual wholesome act perfectly. Capra’s approach, as in most of his films, avoids pure schmaltz, and there is a critical edge in It’s a Wonderful Life’s depiction of the relationship between capitalism and small town America, challenging the role of finance and commerce as it perverts and invades social life.
There are a few other classic Christmas films, that, though less well known, are as good as (or better than) It’s a Wonderful Life – and are certainly worth including on one’s December list.
It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947) is a hilarious farce involving returned GIs squatting in a New York City mansion. Christmas in Connecticut (1945) is a delightful battle of the sexes film starring the inimitable Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan.
George Seaton’s Miracle on 34th Street (1947), following the public trial of a man who claims to be Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn), is a sweet, gentle film offering a nice counterpoint to the sharper-edged Christmas in Connecticut and It Happened on 5th Avenue.
Big budget, mainstream Hollywood Christmas films usually fall into one of three categories.
The first category includes the snide and sarcastic comedies (often featuring shallowly sentimental endings) that have dominated the genre in its large-scale incarnations since the 1980s.
The essential 1980s Christmas comedy, perhaps, is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) – and no self-respecting Christmas film lover’s December can pass without a visit to the Griswolds. Chevy Chase offers a pitch-perfect comedic performance as the quintessential frustrated American suburban dad, and Christmas Vacation is, arguably, the funniest of the Vacation series.
The other key 1980s comedy for cynics is Scrooged (1988), starring Bill Murray as a dissolute TV executive, and featuring cameos by players as diverse as Robert Mitchum and David Johansen, lead singer of the New York Dolls. Scrooged offers a wry revision of Dickens’ classic, though the cheerful ending does seem forced in the context of this film.
More recently, highlights include A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (2011) – a return to form for the pair of lovable stoners after the shambolic Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008) – and Surviving Christmas (2004), a low-key comedy in which a depressed advertising hot shot, played by Ben Affleck, pays an “ordinary” suburban family, led by patriarch James Gandolfini, to host him for the holidays. As Gandolfini and his family increasingly regret the arrangement, Affleck continues to throw more and more money at them in his attempt to fabricate the kind of Norman Rockwellesque Christmas he never had as a child.
Deck the Halls (2006), following Danny DeVito as he tries, to the chagrin of pedantic neighbour Matthew Broderick, to bedeck his house in so many Christmas lights it can be seen from space, and Christmas with the Kranks (2004) are also worth mentioning, as is Ted Demme’s painfully funnyThe Ref (1994).
Many people swear by Bad Santa (2003) – though (like many of Terry Zwigoff’s films) it leaves a bad taste in the mouth – and probably the only Christmas films worth avoiding altogether are the extremely irritating Four Holidays (2008), starring Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughan, and Nora Ephron’s heavy-handed Mixed Nuts (1994).
The second, related, category features Christmas films about the waning of belief in a modern consumerist society, and the subsequent re-invigoration and reproduction of Christmas spirit and jubilation.
The best known in this category are the Home Alone films, but other highlights include Elf (2003), starring Will Ferrell, James Caan and Zooey Deschanel, following the shenanigans of an elf-raised human visiting New York City for the first time, and Jingle All the Way (1996), the best of Schwarzenegger’s comedies, in which he battles, on Christmas eve, to secure a popular toy for his son.
Jingle All the Way contains one of the brilliant scenes of Christmas cinema – a critique of the relationship between the consumer society and the Christmas legend in which zealous parents in search of Turboman, the El Dorado of Christmas toys, attack and maim each other in slow motion, accompanied by Andy Williams’ song It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.
It’s also notable for a hilarious performance by the late Phil Hartman in a supporting role as Ted, Schwarzenegger’s cheese-ball neighbour.
Fred Claus (2007), starring Vince Vaughan, Paul Giamatti, Rachel Weisz, Kathy Bates and Kevin Spacey, is one of the best recent Christmas comedies, following the path of Fred Claus, Santa’s brother, as he struggles to emerge from the shadow of his legendary brother. It contains a brilliant spoof of AA-style groups, and is worth watching for this scene alone.
I’ll Be Home for Christmas (1998) likewise contains some hilarious scenes, as college student Jake (Jonathan Taylor Thomas, from Home Improvement) has to make it from the West Coast to the East Coast of the US by 6pm on Christmas Eve if he is to inherit his father’s Porsche.
Nancy Meyers’ The Holiday (2006) and Love Actually (2003) are both well-made romances set during the Christmas period, although Love Actually has demonstrated superior cultural staying power.
This type of Christmas film often follows a structure akin to A Christmas Carol – including, of course, numerous versions of that story. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) is a particularly strong rendition of Dickens.
The “Christmas Miracle” film is problematic, like so much Hollywood fantasy fare, in that it often offers miraculous solutions to prevalent social problems – even if it acts, in any case, as an eminently satisfying narcotic.
Films about Christmas would be few and far between if it weren’t for the small screen. By far the most prolific of the Christmas film categories is the telemovie.
These films are mostly of the hardcore-schmaltz, Hallmark-channel variety. This kind of super-schmaltz becomes much more palatable when viewed through the green and red lenses of Christmas cheer.
There are far too many Christmas telemovies to mention, but some are worth noting. The excellent Hallmark film, Trading Christmas (2011) is a low-brow version of The Holiday starring solid TV actors Tom Cavanagh (Ed), Gil Bellows (Ally McBeal), and Faith Ford (Hope & Faith).
Two others, unconnected despite the similar titles, are A Mom for Christmas(1990), starring Olivia Newton-John, and A Grandpa for Christmas (2007), starring Hollywood legend Ernest Borgnine in one of his twilight roles.
Perhaps the strangest – and, arguably, most wonderful – Christmas telemovie is the unbeatable Santa With Muscles (1996), which follows Hulk Hogan (the Santa with muscles) as he tries to save an orphanage (!) from an evil property-developer-cum-scientist-cum-megalomaniac.
If you are fortunate enough to source a copy of this tongue in cheek melodrama, look out for a young Mila Kunis as one of the orphans.
The other wonderful Christmas telemovie is the remake of Christmas in Connecticut (1992), a gentler and, in many ways, funnier, film than the original. Directed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, and starring Dyan Cannon and Kris Kristofferson, this version makes a surprisingly insightful criticism of false representation in televisual culture, whilst still offering the requisite amount of sentimentality.
Other telemovies worth having on in the background as you decorate the tree, include The Dog who Saved Christmas (2009), sweet nonsense featuring tele-legend Dean Cain, and The Man who Saved Christmas (2002), a more sober biographical account of A.C. Gilbert, a toy manufacturer who refused to cancel Christmas in response to World War One, effectively played by Jason Alexander.
Genre films set during Christmas
There are also a considerable number of films that are straight forward genre pieces with Christmas thrown into the mix. These are mostly action and horror films.
There are two obvious examples of 1980s action films set during December that incorporate Christmas into their narratives in a way that is more than incidental.
John McTiernan’s Die Hard (1988), one of the most striking action films of the 1980s, is set during a corporate Christmas party, and John McClane’s subtle and not so subtle tirades (and raids) against the corporatisation of America resonate thematically with several of the more explicitly anti-consumerist Christmas films.
Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon (1987) is likewise set in Los Angeles during Christmas, and perhaps the most memorable scene in the film is the introduction of cop on the edge Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) as he breaks up a drug deal in a Christmas tree lot.
Something about the Santa myth lends itself to the horror genre, with its combination of magic and maniacs, and there have been several horror films set during Christmas.
Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974, poorly remade in 2006), an unnerving “slasher” film avant la lettre, is the best of the Christmas horror films. The recent Rare Exports(2010), from Finland, effectively plays on the supernatural elements of the Santa myth.
Horror aficionados will insist on watching the five films of the Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) series – crude and unpleasant exercises in mayhem, without the style or suspense of Black Christmas.
Unless one has always imagined Santa as an axe murderer, one should probably avoid these.
Joe Dante’s monster-comedy Gremlins (1984), too, is set during, and reflects on, the Christmas spirit in small-town America, though it wears thin pretty quickly after the dazzling opening forty minutes or so.
The rest: incidental Christmas films, cartoons, TV Specials
There are, in addition to the aforementioned films, several films set partially or entirely during the Christmas period, even as this doesn’t figure at all thematically or in terms of plot.
Richard Kelly’s nasty The Box (2009), comes to mind, as does Joseph Zito’s Reaganite masterpiece of American xenophobia, Invasion USA (1985). Chuck Norris evidently doesn’t get a break when it comes to defending the US from its imagined enemies.
I was bullied ceaselessly and mercilessly as a child.
Every day at school was hell and I spent my time trying to maintain as small as profile as possible, a necessary strategy which robbed me of all kinds of academic and sporting activities I would’ve been damn good at.
Years, and lots of therapy later, I have largely left the pain of all that bullying behind – who wants their life to be defied by that kind of small-minded cruelty? Not me, thank you – but this deeply-affecting and insightful comic series from Canadian artist Meghan Lands encapsulates in a ways that I can’t even articulate how it feels when you discover the monsters of your childhood are now seemingly normal human beings.
In your mind they’re anything but; still as Lands beautifully describes it, you have to grapple with the fact that these people actually had happy childhoods unlike large slabs of your own.
In my case, it’s watching all the time on Facebook as people who made my childhood a miserable living hell talk to each other about the wonderful times they had at school, like they’ve forgotten how exclusionary and hateful they were.
It leaves me gasping and amazed that they could forget that I was never invited to any of their BBQs, their outings, their big nights out – NONE OF THEM. It’s startling and shocking and dismaying and man, if Lands doesn’t capture it perfectly.