Try It...Yule Love It! (always with the puns, this one is)

A long time ago, back when kids had to ride the wooly mammoth to school, I used to write a lot of comic books. Writing comic scripts is hard work. Much harder than people might imagine. Every panel needs to be described in detail, text boxes and dialogue needs to be written, and the artist needs to have everything he/she needs to tell the story right in front of him/her. On the other hand, writing a comic plot is a walk in the park, complete with ice cream cone and nuts for the squirrels. Back in the 60s, comic book maestro Stan Lee helped change the comic book industry. He helped create a bunch of fun characters like the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the X-Men and lots more. Stan was writing at least a dozen books a week. He had no time to write his stories full script, and he was good friends with most of the artists, so he started providing the artists the bare minimum they needed to draw the story. Sometimes he would even give a long-time collaborator the plot over the telephone.

He might call Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko and tell them, “In this issue the Hulk finds himself on Hoover Dam. The poor lug doesn’t know how he got there, his little peanut brain is confused, and to make matters worse an army battalion arrives to blast him to smithereens. The fight goes on for three or four pages and then the X-Men show up. The Hulk is so worked up he assumes that the X-Men are there to fight him (when in fact they’re there to help remove the mind-controlling chip that the Leader has implanted in the Hulk’s ear) and the Hulk and the X-Men fight for three or four pages. And then the Leader shows up in a milk delivery truck. He fires a mind controlling beam at the X-Men, who then start attacking the army guys and start to tear down Hoover Dam itself. While this is happening the mind-controlling chip falls out of the Hulk’s ear and he has to keep the X-Men from killing the army guys. In the end the Leader gets away with the help of a rocket jetpack.”

Then the artists would sit down and break the plot down to eighteen pages, or however many they had to fill. He would take care of the pacing and continuity and deliver fully penciled pages to Stan, sometimes with dialogue suggestions scribbled on the edges of the page. Stan would take these pencil pages and write the captions and dialogue. After the letterer was done, the pencil art was inked and then color guides were done.

If you’re a newbie writer, like I was and still mostly am, there’s nothing more fun and easier to write than a comic book plot. It’s loose and free form of writing that’s so simple to do the dumbest of my six cats could write one.

Every once in a while I miss writing in that format, so I feed the beast by writing little things that usually never go any further than my computer. The other day I was playing around with an idea I’ve had for a few years now, which concerned how silly of a song The Little Drummer is. I love the song. It’s been a favorite since I was a kid. As Christmas drew near we would put a stack of our eight or nine holiday albums (wax, of course) on the spindle of the record player and every couple of hours we would flop the stack over. We had a few versions of the Little Drummer Boy in our collection.

All sentiment aside, the whole concept of the song is just plain silly. It has bugged me for years how silly it was. So I explored the concept of a poor boy playing a drum solo for a little baby. After I tune it up a bit I may ask someone to draw it up for me and send it out as a Christmas greeting. I’ve never written a mini-comic before, but it could be fun. Here’s what I came up with. I thought I’d share.

Sleepy Newborn Baby + Drum Solo = Disaster

(Written in the Mad Magazine spirit of Jack Davis, Don Martin and Mort Drucker.)

We open with a wide shot of the desert at night that shows a long line of people waiting to get into THE MANGER. Huge billboards (like the kind you see on the freeway—Wisconsin Dells This Way—You’re Almost at Garlic City—Only Ten More Miles To The Biggest Ball Of Twine In Alabama) announce THIS WAY TO SEE THE NEWBORN KING and YOU’RE ALMOST AT THE BABY JESUS and PLEASE FORM A SINGLE LINE TO SEE BABY JESUS. Walking up and down the line of people are vendors with carts selling FRIED YAK ON A STICK and CUP O’HUMMUS and FAR-FROM-AWFUL-FALAFEL.

Standing in the middle of the line is the LITTLE DRUMMER BOY. For some reason I picture him as a 60’s kind of British punk, with a shaggy haircut covering his eyes and a punkish stance. He’s got a snare drum balanced on his hip, hanging from a strap around his shoulder. He twirls drumsticks in both hands and looks bored. He stops twirling when he sees a sign that says PLEASE HAVE GIFTS FOR THE NEWBORN KING READY UPON ENTERING MANGER. He taps the guy in line in front of him on the shoulder with a drumstick and asks, “Oh, man! We were supposed to bring a present?” The guy he’s talking to is one of the Three Wise Men. He’s kind of a stoner. He’s the one bringing frankincense and it looks like he’s been smoking some of it while he waits. “If you know what’s good for you, you’d better bring something. The child is our new king!”

The Drummer Boy sort of recites a line from the song. “I have no gifts to bring. I’m but a poor dude too!” He thinks for a moment then he snaps his fingers and declares that he’ll just play the little baby a wicked drum solo. The kid ought to like that.

The Wise Man shakes his head and points to the very front of the line where see the LITTLE TRUMPET BOY is blasting out a trumpet solo for the baby Jesus. The baby screams so loud the Trumpet Boy’s face looks like he’s pulling ten G’s in a centrifuge. Then a dozen lightning bolts hit the Trumpet Boy, leaving only a smoking cinder of a skeleton standing there. When the smoke clears, the next guy in line, who is visibly jittery, gives his present to the baby. It’s a little kitten, and when the baby coos with joy, the guy wipes a roll of nervous sweat off his face.

Back in the line the Drummer Boy knows his goose is cooked. Or at least it will be when it’s his turn. Everyone else in line seems to have something reasonably good to give. A wooly sheep, a potted plant, baked goods, a cow, homemade toys, and such. Drummer Boy asks the Wise Man to save his spot and he’ll be right back.

We cut to Drummer Boy popping into the Jerusalem version of an AM/PM mini-mart. He scours the shelves for something good to give. There’s a tin of Camel Wax, a robe that has ‘MY PARENTS WENT TO JERUSALEM AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS CRUMMY ROBE’ lettered on it, a rack of crude baseball caps and sun visors (woven out of palm fronds), yak jerky, chunks of flint with novelty sayings on them, and stuff like that.

Then he sees it. The perfect gift. It sits on a shelf, in a glowing angelic halo of light. It’s a can of MYRRH (it’s about the size of a gallon of paint). Slogans on the can read NEWBORN BABIES LOVE IT! and IT’S THE INCENSE THAT CHOOSY VIRGIN MOTHERS CHOOSE.

We see the Drummer Boy reach for the myrrh, but at the same time another guy reaches for it. Each have a hand on it and a tugging match ensues. (The guy that Drummer Boy is fighting with should be dressed in the same sort of fancy robes as the Wise Man he was in line behind earlier. It turns out that he’s Wise Man #2)

Push comes to shove and fists are thrown, but then the Wise Man holds up his hands to call a truce. He reminds the Drummer Boy that this day isn’t about the two of them, it’s a day to celebrate the newborn king. Today is the day of all days to put petty differences aside.

While the Drummer Boy is pondering these profound words, the Wise Man grabs the can of myrrh and races off with it. The Drummer Boy chases after in hot pursuit.

We cut to later that night, back at the manger, where we see Mary and Joseph examining yet another gift that has been given. It’s a scuffed up and slightly dented can of myrrh. The note attached to the can reads, HAPPY BIRTHDAY, NEWBORN KING and signed below are the names LITTLE DRUMMER BOY and WISE MAN #2. Mary and Joseph look up and see Drummer Boy and Wise Man #2 standing there, arms around each other, with torn robes, missing teeth, a couple of black eyes, bandaged limbs, and maybe a crude pair of crutches made out of a tree branch. They’ve been through hell but they still smile at the little fellow they see down in the manger.



Dr. Oh No, Not Again!

Thanksgiving of ’05 passed with a minimum of stress and drama in our household, with is the way I like it. The most startling thing that happened was the sudden realization that I hate (I realize that ‘hate’ is a powerful word, and should be used as sparingly as one would use a thermonuclear bomb, but I feel it’s called for here) James Bond. I hate the character (as portrayed in the movies; I’m certainly not passing judgment on the literary version), I hate the movies (although the last few have been more bearable than the earlier ones), and I hate to bloody hell the whole smirking catch phrase craze the movies started.

My realization of just how much I’ve come to hate James Bond occurred while flicking the television remote control and stopping on SpikeTV’s James Bondage Turkey-thon. The Bond film that was playing (in tiny snippets between twenty-minute long commercial breaks) was 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me. Nothing seemed really familiar about it, so I don’t know if I’d ever seen it. Of course, most of the James Bond movies are a lot like the Hardy Boys books that I grew up on. The plot remains the same, only the lead characters and the location changes.

The main baddie in The Spy Who Loved Me was played by an embarrassed-looking Curt Jurgens, wearing wardrobe straight out of the Charles Nelson Reilly Collection of 1974. Honestly, who can keep a straight face whilst dealing with a criminal mastermind who wears a flowing paisley ascot? Not I, and Roger Moore had his hands full.

Roger Moore. Yeah, I know. He’s like Kryptonite to a lot of diehard Bond fans who believe the only true Bond was the Connery Bond. I used to be a card-carrying member of that group, but lately I’ve given Moore at least some credit for staying with the character during some of Bond’s worst movies. In other words (because I fear my prior words aren’t conveying what I really mean) when you lay down judgment on Bond movies, you have to consider the source material—the scripts.

One of the first things a new writer needs to add to his bag of tricks is the subtle art of foreshadowing. If at the end of a story one of the characters is going to need a pair of false eyelashes to save his life, earlier in the story we need to have him see him walking out of beauty supply store, stuffing a package into his inside jacket pocket. (Okay, a little clumsy, but still subtle. Most readers, on a subconscious level, will make the connection when the character pulls the eyelashes out of his inside pocket. Just as, again on a subconscious level, most will send up a red flag when a sixty-five year old steamship captain suddenly pulls said eyelashes out of his pocket without the foreshadowing.) The writers of the Bond movies are famous for delivering their foreshadowing with the delicacy of a sledgehammer wrapped in bricks.

For example, M calls Bond into his office to outline his latest assignment. “Quit sniffing around Moneypenny’s arse, Bond. Everyone knows that the sexual tension between the two of you is phonier than the Queen’s glass eye. Now, concerning your mission. Some diabolical madman with a paisley ascot has hijacked the United States’ Mount Rushmore. The military forces are helpless, for some convenient reason, so it’s up to you, Bond. Before you leave, and make another pathetic faux pass at Moneypenny, see Q for a few things you may need in the field.”

“Ah, Bond. Glad you remembered your way down to the Q Branch. I’m a bit behind schedule so let’s get this out of the way as fast as we can. Come along with me. No, don’t eat that, you fool! It only looks like a Filet O’Fish sandwich. It’s secretly a bear trap. And certainly don’t look into those binoculars! They will erase your retinas and churn your brain into Yorkshire pudding! My word, Bond! Stop making love to that seemingly harmless inflatable woman! Sign your name on the list and wait your turn like the rest of us.

Well then, now that the dryly comedic portion of our meeting has come to an end, here are the special armaments 'you may just happen to need' for your mission. First, grab a handful of bullets, and then take this saggy sack of soggy diapers, which is in reality a nuclear-powered hang glider. Next, strap on this string of stinky German sausages, which serves to disguise a six-foot-long diamond rope. And finally, pop this ‘I Heart Fly Fishing’ cap on your noggin. When you activate this hidden switch the hat converts into a uranium-fueled radar array capable of tapping into spy satellites and downloading plans for secret enemy bases.”

Okay, so I’m exaggerating a little bit, but there’s a really big nugget of truth in what I say. Q would always just happen to give Bond the exact equipment he needed on that particular mission. Bond would just happen to need every single item Q provided. And at the end of the mission there were never any items left unused. If Q gave Bond a solar-powered fertilizer spreader, then Bond damn well used a solar-powered fertilizer spreader.

Boy, I hated that when I was a kid. And I hate it even more as an adult. Just once, give Bond a watch with a winch and a fifty-foot cable built into it, and then have him not use it. Ooops, he forgot it back at his flat, so now he has to use his brain and brawn and objects at hand to complete his objective.

My favorite Bond movie to date is 2002’s Die Another Day. I got my money’s worth within the first half hour. For me, a Bond movie needs to start with a bang and then run light and lean to an explosive conclusion. Die Another Day gets a little soggy in the middle and in during the ice palace scenes, but dollar for dollar it’s my favorite Bond flick. In my book, nobody does it better than Pierce Bronsan. (Somewhere in Texas my good friend Tom Morgan’s heart has just skipped a beat, and a bit of stomach acid has backed up into his esophagus. Sorry Tom.)

Connery used to be my go-to Bond favorite, but Bronsan stole the crown from him with 1995’s GoldenEye. Both men are certainly great actors, and they deliver their performances with delicious aplomb, but Pierce Bronsan has simply had better scripts to work from. Dr. No may have been great shakes in 1962, but its only appeal today is nostalgic.

Some of the worst enemies of the early Bond movies has been the advent of home video and greedy cable networks. The movie Goldfinger was a hundred times cooler when it was only shown on television once every three or four years. But these days, when most males of voting age own a copy of the film on VHS, Laserdisc, DVD or PSP, and channels like SpikeTV show it three or four times a year, the poor thing doesn’t stand a chance of holding up. Every glitch and blemish is on display for us to see again and again and again. Time heals some wounds and helps us gloss over the others, but time is no longer a luxury that movies are allowed. Even the naked silhouettes of the girls in the opening credits are getting a little flabby.

And now Bronsan is gone and we’ll have a new Bond to accept. Just give him something exciting and smart to do and watch how fast we’ll take him into our hearts. Keep your clich├ęs and formulas. All we want is to be entertained. At least that’s all I want. And to be best buddies with The Rock.