Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 189: 'Ed Wood Jr. Graphic Novel' (2022)

I only recently learned of this strange, great graphic novel about Ed Wood.

In 1982, musician Brian Eno told Los Angeles Times reporter Kristine McKenna that the album The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967) only sold 30,000 copies in its first five years, but "everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band." We could quibble here. The seminal art-rock album had sold more than 30,000 copies by 1972, and it's impossible to say how many bands were formed as a direct result of its release. But you get Eno's point: the VU album had an influence far bigger than its meager commercial success would indicate. Somehow, this weird little LP inspired creativity in others.

Who knew this existed?
I feel Ed Wood has had a similar effect on his fans. He's the Velvet Underground and Nico of directors, if you will. Popularity eluded him during his lifetime, and even a big-budget, mainstream biopic about him massively underperformed at the box office in 1994. But still the Wood-inspired tribute projects continue to materialize, nearly half a century after his death. In the course of writing this column, I have discussed feature films, short films, albums, books, musicals, trading cards, fan art, and even toys inspired by the works of Edward D. Wood, Jr. 

Just a couple of weeks ago, I reviewed John Wooley's graphic novel version of Plan 9 from Outer Space from 1990 and lamented that there weren't more Wood-inspired comics for us fans to enjoy. But I was in luck! The ever-reliable Bob Blackburn posted recently on Facebook about something called Ed Wood Jr. Graphic Novel (2022) credited to one Diana Wood, a Portland-based illustrator presumably unrelated to Eddie. This was totally outside my field of experience. I'd never heard of this artist or this book, but it was inexpensive and looked promising, so I took the plunge. To kill the suspense, I'm glad I did.

Incidentally, I bought this graphic novel from Amazon, and a page near the back of the book indicates that my personal copy was printed the day I ordered it at a facility near where I live. I must be a luddite or something, but is that how books work now? If so, I'm in. The book arrived remarkably quickly and was very slick and professional, like anything you'd find at Barnes & Noble. Très impressionnant! And this makes every copy unique. I'm happy to have this as a physical object and not a PDF file or a folder of JPGs. 

The novel itself is a phantasmagoria that freely intermingles elements from Ed Wood's movies, Eddie's real life story, and author Diana Wood's fertile imagination. It's set in the early-to-mid-1950s, the same years covered in Ed Wood (1994). You will not see the booze-bloated, long-haired Eddie directing porno flicks or writing tawdry paperbacks. Instead, the book focuses most heavily on the making of Ed's first two features, Glen or Glenda (1953) and Jail Bait (1954), though Bride of the Monster (1955) and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957) are evoked here as well.

After a suitably dramatic introduction from Criswell, we commence with the making of Glen or Glenda in 1953. A young, eager Eddie interviews with producer George Weiss, gets the job of writing and direction the film, tells girlfriend Dolores Fuller the good news, and then dons women's underwear, makeup, and a wig to get inspired to write the screenplay. Later, on the set, an elderly, ill Bela Lugosi is coughing terribly but still manages to give a performance that brings tears to Ed's eyes. With that in the can, Eddie dons female attire to shoot his own scenes. This surprises but does not anger or upset Bela. Ed's friend Bunny Breckinridge drops by the set and is impressed by Ed's boldness. Dolores is initially upset to see her boyfriend dressed as a woman but soon gets over it. Together they shoot the film's famous dream sequence, bringing the graphic novel's first chapter to a close.

Some panels from Ed Wood Jr. Graphic Novel. (Photo by Bob Blackburn.)

In the second chapter, budget-conscious George Weiss drops by the set and is shocked to find Ed not only dressed in drag but starring in the movie in addition to writing and directing. Eddie reassures him that all is well and completes the movie. We then see several iconic moments from Glen or Glenda: Glen confessing his secret to Barbara; Glen discussing his problems with his friend Johnny (Charlie Crafts); Glen having a nightmare in which his father (Captain DeZita) is depicted as the Devil; and Barbara reluctantly handing over her angora sweater to Glen. Ed Wood proudly screens the finished movie for an appalled George Weiss, who tells him it is terrible and will bomb at the box office. Eddie fumes, declaring that George is wrong.

We are then treated to a six-page mini-biography of Maila "Vampira" Nurmi called "The Story of Vampira," complete with many portraits of the lady herself. After growing up in Oregon, Maila moves to Los Angeles and becomes a glamour model. One night in the early 1950s, she attends a Halloween party dressed as a Morticia Addams-type female ghoul character called Vampira and lands a job hosting a TV horror show. The program is an immediate sensation—a true succès de scandale—and Maila becomes, in the book's words, "the first queen of counter culture." But Vampira's show only lasts a year, and Maila nearly lapses into poverty before accepting a role as a zombie in Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space.  Against all odds, that film gains an "accidental fame" that rescues both Maila and Ed from obscurity.

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 188: Ed Wood's recurring characters (including Kelton and Lobo)

For some reason, Ed Wood kept bringing Officer Kelton back.

Three of Ed Wood's 1950s filmsBride of the Monster (1955), Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957), and Night of the Ghouls (1959)—are collectively known as "The Kelton Trilogy" because they all feature actor Paul Marco as bumbling, cowardly Officer Kelton, a uniformed cop who repeatedly comes into contact with the otherworldly and supernatural. In Ghouls, narrator Criswell gives us a succinct description of the character:
Patrolman Paul Kelton, 29 years of age, four years with the department, eager for the glory of the uniform but wide-eyed with fear at the thought of actually being on special duty. Unfortunately, though eager, not what the department usually looks for in their officers.
Ouch. The other characters in these movies tend to treat Kelton with utter contempt. In Night of the Ghouls, the character even describes himself as "the whipping boy of the whole police force." He's basically the Jar Jar Binks of the Ed Wood universe. So why did Ed keep bringing back Officer Kelton, reusing him the way Shakespeare reused Falstaff? A few reasons, I think. First, Paul Marco was one of his closest buddies and wasn't exactly drowning in work outside of Eddie's films. I'm certain the zany Kelton character was written especially with Paul Marco in mind. ("Hey, Paul, I've got a great part for you in my next picture!")

Beyond that, Ed Wood was heavily inspired by the Universal horror movies of the 1930s and '40s, and those films tend to include broad comic relief provided by wacky supporting characters—chambermaids, English bobbies, villagers, etc. It seems like a Universal movie isn't complete until some Cockney-accented stooge gets spooked by the monster du jour and trips over his own feet trying to run away. Paul Marco's scaredy-cat Officer Kelton is very much in that tradition. As unnecessary as the character may seem to modern viewers, he has his roots in classic horror.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Podcast Tuesday: "Ancient Chinese Secret, Huh?"

Fonzie (Henry Winkler) seems pretty chummy with the villainous Ming Fu.

This week marks what I'd call a milestone in the history of our humble podcast. We are finally releasing our 255th episode, meaning that we have tied Happy Days (1974-84) in terms of sheer quantity. But, wait, since we reviewed every episode of Happy Days already, shouldn't we have reached the 255 milestone months ago? Not quite. 

See, the original ABC sitcom did a lot of multi-episode stories. In syndication, two-parters count as two separate episodes, three-parters count as three, etc. But we would sometimes review those stories all at once, meaning that we "only" amassed 247 episodes by the time we got to the finale. Thanks to the animated series, however, we've managed to reach our 255th episode and will soon surpass it. I don't know about my cohost, but I plan to keep this show going indefinitely. Who knows? It may reach 300 or 400 episodes someday.

But what do we have for this milestone installment of These Days Are Ours: A Happy Days Podcast? Well, we're reviewing the December 1980 episode "Ming Fu to You, Too." It's an adventure set vaguely in "ancient China" in which Fonzie (Henry Winkler) and his pals meet the villainous Ming Fu, an obvious ripoff of Fu Manchu. How embarrassingly racist does it get? You'll just have to click to find out.

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 187: A look back at the 'Plan 9' comic book adaptation

A comic book I think Eddie would have loved.

In 1990, Malibu Graphics went all-in on Ed Wood. The fledgling California comics company, best remembered today for such titles as Men in Black and Ultraforce, released two strange but intriguing little books based on Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957) that year: an "uncensored and uncut" screenplay and a graphic novel. These slim volumes could have easily been combined into one omnibus edition, but instead they were released separately. Did the company succumb to the Ed Wood curse? You tell me. By the time the Tim Burton-directed biopic Ed Wood (1994) was released to theaters, Malibu had already been absorbed (read: chewed up and spat out) by rival Marvel Comics.

The early '90s, in retrospect, was rather a fallow time for Wood fandom. A decade had elapsed since The Golden Turkey Awards (1980), but Rudolph Grey's groundbreaking book Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (1992) had not yet been published. Eddie wasn't in the public eye very much during those years. Malibu's two modest Plan 9 books can thus only be seen as labors of love; they certainly weren't the result of market research or trend-hopping.

The 1990 Plan 9 comic book.
I've already discussed the screenplay book in a fair amount of detail, so this week I turn my attention to the graphic novel, which carries the subtitle The Official Authorized Movie Adaptation. (I believe film distributor Wade Williams gave his blessing to the project at the time.) Like the script book, the comic was edited by Malibu Graphics co-founder Tom Mason. Yes, he shares a name with the gaunt chiropractor who once served as Bela Lugosi's double in the original Plan 9. No, they're not the same guy. The chiropractor died in 1980. It's just a wacky coincidence, maybe one that Ed Wood himself would have found amusing.

Malibu assembled quite a team to create the Plan 9 comic. The script was adapted to graphic novel form by author John Wooley (1949- ). In his decades-long career, the multitalented Wooley has written for Fangoria, penned volumes about beach movies and biker flicks, and hosted an NPR show about Western swing, among many other endeavors. Like Johnny Legend, Wooley has done so much in so many fields that it's difficult to define him or categorize him. But he's more than qualified for the job of writing this comic. The artwork was penciled by Stan Timmons (1956- ) and inked by Bruce McCorkindale (1960- ), both prolific veterans of the comics industry with voluminous credits at DC, Marvel, and other publishers.

In an introductory essay called "Shabby Dignity," Wooley decries The Golden Turkey Awards as smug and condescending and laments the negative attention the book brought to Ed Wood and Plan 9. However, he acknowledges that the graphic novel he's writing would probably not exist without Harry and Michael Medved. He also describes the approach that he and his creative team took in adapting Wood's film to the comics medium. Basically, they had two choices. They could literally translate the film to the page, complete with wonky special effects and mismatched footage. "Or we could do it straight," Wooley writes, "using Wood's story and dialogue but—in effect—giving him a budget, since it costs no more to draw a million-dollar spaceship than it does to draw a pieplate." 

Ultimately, Wooley and company chose the latter option, and I'm glad they did because this graphic novel gives us a Plan 9 that we haven't seen, rather than rehashing the one we've sat through a hundred times. To be sure, this comic is a faithful, instantly recognizable adaptation of Ed Wood's film. The comic book versions of Tor Johnson, Vampira, Bela Lugosi, and Criswell all look like their famous onscreen counterparts. Meanwhile, John Wooley's script carries over the plot and dialogue we all know with just a few tasteful adjustments, including some added explanatory narration. But Stan Timmons and Bruce McCorkindale have been given a fair amount of leeway in redesigning sets, props, costumes, and supporting characters. Edie the stewardess, for instance, has been given a very 1980s-looking permed hairdo and does not much resemble Norma McCarty's version of the character. Eros and Tanna's ship is more credible, too, and the tombstones in the cemetery don't appear as though they're about to fall over.

A redesigned Edie in a more realistic cockpit in the Plan 9 comic book.

Also, because the makers of this comic are not shackled by the constraints of low-budget filmmaking, such as filming real actors on a cramped soundstage, they can show us the action from vantage points that would have been impossible for Ed Wood to replicate. We get closeups, wide shots, Dutch angles, overhead shots, and other niceties that Eddie simply didn't have the time and money for. The comic book even manages to work some visual interest into Plan 9's talkiest and most static scenes, such as when Col. Edwards (Tom Keene) meets with Gen. Roberts (Lyle Talbot) at the Pentagon.

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 186: Tom Jung and the iconic 'Plan 9' poster

It turns out that this familiar poster was created by a prolific and successful artist.

In Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994), the title character (Johnny Depp) is so eager to direct an upcoming biopic of Christine Jorgensen that he visits the headquarters of a hole-in-the-wall studio called Screen Classics and talks to the film's producer, George Weiss (Mike Starr). Weiss tells Eddie that the film will have to be fictionalized, since he doesn't have the rights to Christine Jorgensen's life, but he's going forward with the project anyway.

"Is there a script?" Eddie asks.

"Fuck no," Weiss replies. "But there's a poster."

With that, he holds up a one-sheet featuring a half-man, half-woman and the provocative title I Changed My Sex, cheerfully adding that the film "opens in nine weeks in Tulsa."

Is this Ed Wood's most famous poster?
The scene illustrates the importance that posters have had in selling films, both big and small, for decades. Who can forget the iconic posters for Jaws (1975), Halloween (1978), Silence of the Lambs (1991), and Jurassic Park (1993)? Movie posters are a lot like movie trailers: pretty much every theatrically-released film gets them, regardless of genre, and they promise thrills and excitement that the movies themselves can't always deliver. Because they're so collectable, movie posters have been remarkably long-lived for something that's supposed to be ephemeral. Occasionally in my research, I've found film posters that have survived even when the films themselves haven't!

So far, I've not written a lot about the posters that advertised Ed Wood's movies, even though these were a constant in his career from the 1950s to the 1970s and beyond. Let's change that today, shall we? If I were to pick out the single best-known poster used to advertise one of Eddie's movies, I'd probably choose the one-sheet for Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957). If you're a Wood fan, you've seen this one countless times—the grim-faced astronaut with his head encased in a fishbowl, the shadowy gravediggers, the cloaked figure menacing a man in a tunic, the spaceships soaring overhead, and even Vampira herself in a strapless, sleeveless red cocktail dress better suited to Jessica Rabbit. It's a poster that raises many questions, namely: "What the hell kind of movie is this, anyway?"

Ed Wood's most famous film premiered under its original title, Grave Robbers from Outer Space, on March 15, 1957 at the long-since-demolished Carlton Theatre in Los Angeles, but it didn't achieve any kind of meaningful release until 1959, when it was picked up by the Hal Roach-owned Distributors Corporation of America (DCA), retitled Plan 9 from Outer Space, and shipped out to unsuspecting theaters across America. That's also when the film acquired its iconic poster.

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Podcast Tuesday: "Second Best Western"

Fonzie (right) meets his doppelganger on The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang.

Recording a very unnecessary Happy Days podcast involves a surprising amount of solitary, tedious labor, namely researching and editing. But it's all worth it for the fun my cohost and I have when recording. I live alone and don't really have anything to say at work, so doing a podcast might be the only conversation I have with anyone all week. The problem is, I have so many words stored up that I turn into a real motormouth when I'm on mic. And because I converse so rarely, I tend to ramble and interrupt and go off on tangents.

As you might guess, then, each episode of These Days Are Ours: A Happy Days Podcast has to be heavily edited before it can be posted. A lot of my digressions wind up on the proverbial cutting room floor. This week, one of the casualties was my lengthy explanation of the character of Cupcake (voiced by Didi Conn), the ditsy "future chick" who accompanies Fonzie (Henry Winkler), Richie (Ron Howard), and Ralph Malph (Don Most) on their misadventures through time and space. I felt that including this material in the podcast would have slowed down the conversation too much, so out it went.

But this blog is just for my own amusement, so I'll give the explanation here. Basically, my guess is that Cupcake is the spoiled yet nice daughter of a wealthy man from the 25th century. ("Cupcake" is just a nickname her daddy gave her.) She's never really had any responsibilities, and she was too focused on having fun to focus on her studies. That's why she's often so useless in crises and has such poor control over her magic powers. Daddy gave her a time machine for her 18th birthday, and she took it for a spin before learning how to operate it. She soon crashed in 1957 Milwaukee and recruited Fonzie and his pals to help her. (In the opening credits, you can see her sitting dejectedly on the hood of a car when Fonzie approaches her.)

That's my "head canon" for Cupcake on The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang. You won't hear it in our review of the cowboy adventure "Westward Whoa!" but you'll hear plenty of other things we had to say about the episode. And there's an easy way to do it: just press play.