Monday, November 21, 2011

Music Review: The Music of DC Comics - 75th Anniversary Collection



In case you weren't aware, last year (2010) was the 75th Anniversary of DC Comics.  The company came out with a lot of cool products to celebrate, including a Poster Book of comic book covers from their entire 75 year history and the massive $200 75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Mythmaking. One of the more interesting releases, in my opinion, was a collection of music called "The Music of DC Comics - 75th Anniversary Collection."

What's included on this album?  You get 31 tracks of music spanning from 1941 up through 2009.  You get a lot of the ones that you'd expect (the John Williams' "Superman" theme, the Danny Elfman "Batman" theme, and the "Batman" live action TV show theme, for example). 

What I liked about the set, though, were the more obscure tracks that I either didn't have on another disc, or that I hadn't even heard of before. 

"The Superman March" from 1941 is from the old Fleischer Studios animated series, about which I've written before.  Although I have the entire run on DVD, it's awesome to have the theme song on my iPod now so I can listen to it in the car.  As much as I like the John Williams "Superman" theme, the version by Sammy Timberg is just so much more regal.  The Williams' version feels like a big sweeping theme that was created for a big budget movie.  The Timberg version feels like... well, it feels like Superman.  It's a brass-driven score and includes the famous opening "Up in the sky... Look!  It's a bird!  It's a plane!  It's Superman!"  This track leads off the album and is the start of seven Superman-related themes.  In addition to this one and the Williams' theme, you also get the opening theme (including voice-over) to the Filmation 1960s "The New Adventures of Superman" by John Gart, who is responsible for nearly a third of all of the tracks on this album; the theme song to the TV show "Lois & Clark"; "The Adventures of Superboy", also from the Filmation animated series from the 1960s; "Superboy", from the 1988 live action show; and the end credits theme to the TV show "Smallville." 

Next up is one that I wasn't familiar with at all, a piece called ""Batman: The Electrical Brain" by Lee Zahler.  This theme is from Batman's very first live-action on-screen appearance from 1943.  I have heard of these old live action black-and-white serials before, but I've never seen them.  This music was previously unreleased, making it a gem to find on this CD.  It includes a voice-over that sets up the scene.  The music that plays underneath is very typical of the era and the serials that were popular at the time. 

This tracks leads off another seven-track set, this time of "Batman" related music.  The Danny Elfman "Batman" theme from the 1989 Tim Burton film is next, which has always been my favorite Batman theme, hands down.  This is followed by the John Gart track "The Adventures of Batman" from the 1960s Filmation cartoon series (complete, as with all of the John Gart tracks, with voice-over).  Next we get the famous Neal Hefti theme to the campy 1960s live-action "Batman" show starring Adam West (complete with the BIF! BAM! POW! trumpet sound effects) and then a more modern piece - the theme to Cartoon Network's "Batman: The Brave and the Bold" and then the main title to "Batman Beyond."  The Batman set wraps up with the track "Molossus" by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard from "Batman Begins." 

The third "set" of tracks relate to the Justice League and its televised incarnations.  The first one is by John Gart from the 1960s Filmation "shorts" that aired during the "Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure" Filmation cartoon series that ran in 1967/1968. This series included a bunch of "guest star" cartoon shorts, one of which was the "Justice League."  The music in this piece is actually rather incidental - the track is mainly about the announcer listing the names of the various of the Justice League, and then ends with a triumphant brass and wind instrument fanfare. 

Following this is the theme to the 1970s "Super Friends" cartoon - specifically the incarnation that included Marvin, Wendy, and Wonder-Dog (all of whom are mentioned by name during the voice-over).  This is one of the old classic cartoon themes, even if the actual show itself left a little to be desired. 

Next up we get a newer incarnation of the Superfriends from the "All New Super Friends Hour", which this time include the Wonder Twins and their stupid idiot monkey.  The announcer, amazingly, sounds pretty much like the same guy through all of these different tracks, even though they are recorded many years apart.  The theme is by the same guy as the original Super Friends theme, Hoyt Curtin, and it's really just a different take on the same song.  But, it's fun to compare the two and hear the differences. 

We then flash forward to the 2000s with the theme to "Justice League Unlimited."   While I am a big fan of this show (and I own the entire run on DVD), I was never super thrilled with the theme song.  It's modern mix of electric guitar with orchestral type music just never worked for me.  It never seemed to capture the majesty of Earth's greatest superheroes. 

Then we go back in time to 1979's "Legend of the Superheroes", which is oddly show that I have no memory of.  It was a live action version of the Hanna Barbara cartoon series, and it aired on NBC in 1979.  I can't say that I'm anxious to see these, given the description of a Super Hero "roast" featuring an African-American character named "Ghetto Man."  As far as the music, like many of the "opening credit themes", the music track here is really incidental.  The focus is on the voice-over.  The team line-up is quite different: Captain Marvel, Green Lantern, Hawkman, the Huntress (?!), the Flash, Black Canary, Robin, and Batman. 

Going back in time again, we get a short 30-second theme by John Gart from the "Teen Titans" short that aired during the aforementioned "Superman / Aquaman Hour of Adventure" in the 1960s.  The Titans line-up includes the classic group of Kid Flash, Wonder Girl, Speedy, and Aqua Lad.  Missing is Robin, who at the time in this incarnation was actually a member of the Justice League.

We also get the short John Gart track for the Filmation "Aquaman" cartoon, which again is overpowered by the voice-over explaining who Aquaman and Aqualad are.

A surprising inclusion is the theme from the live-action TV series "The Swamp Thing" by Christopher Stone.  This is another show that I've never seen, but I at least remember hearing about it.  Like most of the other tracks, this one includes a voice-over, but at least the music plays uninterrupted for about 35 seconds or so.  This one is more woodwind-based with a lot of percussion (not loud percussion, just a lot of different kinds of percussion).  It does a good job of provoking a feeling of mystery. 

Then we are treated to the theme from the live-action "Shazam" from the 1970s.  I remember watching this show on Saturday Mornings every week as a kid.  Almost the entire track except the last 15 seconds is overdubbed with a voice-over explaining who Billy Batson / Captain Marvel is.

The next two tracks are very short John Gart compositions for "The Flash" and the "Green Lantern" cartoon shorts that aired as part of the "Superman / Aquaman Hour of Adventure." The music for each is, of course, covered up by a voice-over explaining who the characters are and the what their powers involve.

After that is a slightly over two-minute track of all instrumental music from "Green Lantern First Flight", one of the recent direct to home video DC Animated Movies.  This is more of a standard musical score and theme that you would hear for a movie - it's a big, sweeping score featuring a full orchestra and some interesting percussion that somehow does a good job of imparting a feeling of being in "outer space." You wouldn't listen to this and think that the subject matter is fantasy or Western, for example.  Interestingly, though, I don't think the theme has a good "hook" to it.  I remember an interview once with Danny Elfman wherein he described that a good theme is one that you can hum or whistle in just a few notes.  Think of Elfman's "Batman" score.  Ba-ba-ba-BAAAAAAAAAaaaa-bum.  The "First Flight" score just doesn't have that hook to it. 

We then go back to two themes from the cartoon shorts from the "Superman / Aquaman Hour of Adventure" - the Atom and Hawkman, both by John Gart and featuring the requisite explanatory voice-over.

Another surprise inclusion is the theme and voice-over from the opening credits of the old "Plastic Man Comedy Adventure Show" from 1979.  I had completely forgotten about this show, but the truth is I didn't really like the show that much as a kid.  I was never really much of a Plastic Man fan until much later in life when he was incorporated into the Justice League.  I think he's better when playing off of other heroes rather than being on his own.  The music, by Dean Elliott, is rather incidental underneath the long voice-over and the kooky sound effects, but it's mainly a brass-driven score that does a decent job of combining the elements of comedy and adventure.

The last two tracks on the CD are dedicated to Wonder Woman.  The first is is a 3+ minute score from the 2009 direct to home video release "Wonder Woman the Animated Movie."  The music here is by Christopher Drake, and similar to the score for "Green Lantern First Flight", it does a good job of evoking the subject matter.  There is a sweeping, adventurous part of the score over which a female voice sings in gibberish (I know that's not the technical musical term - she's not seeing actual words) that sounds vaguely ancient and "Greek-like."  If you've heard the score to the movie "Gladiator", you know what I'm talking about. There's a regal, majestic section, followed by a darker piece toward the middle of the track with lots of drums and chanting male voices (somewhat reminiscent of some of the score from "The Lord of the Rings" movies), which gives way to a softer, more lyrical section, leading into a return of the theme from the beginning of the track.  All of this happens in the space of three minutes.  Again, it's a good piece of music, but there is no "hook."  If I were hearing this out of context, I don't know that I'd be able to pinpoint that it was from the Wonder Woman movie.

The disc closes out with the classic theme to the TV series "Wonder Woman" from the 1970s.  You all know the track.  It's a fun, goofy way to end the album. 

I'm really happy that I picked this up.  It's not necessarily the world's best music, and many of the musical tracks are actually covered up by long voice-overs, making it extremely unlikely that one would pop this CD in to just sit and listen to the music.  However, many of the tracks were previously unavailable in any other format, making their inclusion here important from a kind of documentation aspect.  Also, the really short John Gart compositions from the cartoon shorts that appeared during Filmation's "Superman / Aquaman Hour of Adventure" were all brand new to me.  I don't actually remember seeing any of those cartoon shorts before, but I've learned that they are all available now on DVD. The voice-over explanation of each character and his or her powers is actually a pretty good introduction to the world of DC Comics, as evidenced by my young 2 1/2 year old daughter, who loves listening to these in the car on the way to Daycare every day, and has memorized the names of pretty much all of the heroes.  She will even request, "More Hawkman, Daddy!" and other similar demands. 

Fans of DC Comics Characters and of old cartoons from the 60s, 70s, and 80s will definitely enjoy this collection.

Hanging: Home Office

Drinking: Latest beverage was a 2005 Core Greneache, Alta Mesa Vineyard (drank with leftover rosemary basted rack of lamb, roasted fingerling potatoes, and lemon/butter/pine-nut green beans)

Listening: The Music of DC Comics - 75th Anniversary Collection (link to buy on iTunes)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Conan the Adventurer Cartoon Series?!

While on Amazon today, I noticed in my section "Coming Soon for You", a DVD collection called "Conan the Adventurer: Season 2, Part 1."  I clicked over and saw that apparently there was a Conan cartoon produced by Sunbow (the same animation company that produced Transformers and G.I. Joe), starting in 1992.  Apparently there are a total of 51 episodes, and yet I've never even heard of this before!

The description, unsurprisingly, doesn't look like it bears all that much resemblance to Howard's creation, other than the names.  Conan supposedly rides a horse named Thunder and adventures with Jezmine, Snagg, Needle, Greywolf and Zula on a "quest to rescue Conan’s family from an evil spell cast by the Serpent Man wizard Wrath-Amon."  He's also armed with a sword forged from "star-metal."

Since I didn't grow up with this one, like I did with Thundarr, I don't think the nostalgia factor is going to win out and cause me to get this.  But, I am still a little intrigued.  I wouldn't mind checking it out via Netflix streaming or something like that.

Anybody else out there hear of this?  I'm shocked that in all the time I've spent reading OSR blogs and the absolute love for all things Conan that many bloggers rave about, somehow I've never seen anybody talking about this.

Monday, November 14, 2011

My Time Working With Wizards of the Coast (Part 4)

This entry will finish my four-part saga about my time working on the advertising for Wizards of the Coast back in the early 2000s.  To get the full effect, you can read the past entries here: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

So, continuing...

At this point, after working on the account for about two years, things started to go South very quickly. 

According to my client at WotC at the time, Hasbro was a little annoyed that they had put a lot of money into WotC, ostensibly to obtain the Pokémon license, which by this time was on a severe downslide from its former peak of sales and popularity.  D&D and Magic: The Gathering, while much smaller properties, were also but a shadow of their glory in terms of sales.  Many of WotC's other properties were pretty much a bust right out of the gate: card games based on Major League Baseball, World Class Wrestling, and (get ready) Looney Tunes (?!?!) had not done well at all and were discontinued. 

Then, things started to look up.  WotC picked up the exclusive license to produce a trading card game based on the very popular Harry Potter books.  The first movie had just come out in November of 2001 and the series was really starting to take off.  Magic: The Gathering and Pokémon, both trading card games, had been huge successes for WotC.  A trading card game based on the extremely popular Harry Potter series seemed like a sure win. 

And that's when corporate America got involved, in all its glory. 

You see, at this time, since Warner Brothers had paid for the rights to develop the movies based on the Harry Potter series, they somehow had it written into their contract that they got a say in any Harry Potter merchandising that was developed.  J.K. Rowling, the author of the series, also had very tight control over her property, so she had a sort of final approval capability on anything that was done with her characters, which would include the advertising for any products based on her characters.  WotC signed the deal to obtain the license for the Harry Potter Trading Card Game, but since Hasbro owned WotC, they took a very keen interest in what happened with the game.  They were betting that they had another Pokémon phenomenon on their hands. 

Anyone who knows anything about how things work knows that having four"decision-makers" (WotC, Hasbro, Rowling, Warner Brothers) involved in something is just going to make it a complete mess.  And that's exactly what happened. 

From the get-go, the designers at WotC were severely limited in the types of cards they could create.  My team at the ad agency designed a promotion for young budding authors through the Scholastic program at junior high schools where they would write stories in the Harry Potter universe (a form of fan-fic, I guess) which would be judged by a panel of people from WotC and perhaps J.K. Rowling herself, and the winners would get their likeness on a custom card designed for an expansion to the game.  In essence, they would get to be part of the Harry Potter universe.  This idea was killed because according to the terms of the license, WotC wasn't allowed to create new characters.  That's just one example.

Then the Hasbro Corporate woman from the East Coast called an "all partners" meeting in Los Angeles and I went to the meeting as the most senior agency person working on the WotC business.  Except, as it turns out, I wasn't the most senior person there.  The Hasbro Corporate woman, who knew nothing of the types of games WotC made, nor had ever met or even talked to me, decided that I must not know what I was doing, and corralled a bunch of senior people from our New York Office who worked on other Hasbro brands.  They were all women in their mid-40s or older who had a kind of disdain for the types of "boy games" that WotC made.  It reminded me very much of the stories I'd heard about Lorraine Williams. 

To give you a quick idea of what the Corporate person was like, I was told by one of my counterparts in the New York office that she (the Corporate person) was never in the office, so one time they needed her to approve something very urgently and they had to track her down at her nail salon and present a plan to her while she sat there and got her nails done.  This is how corporate America works.  

So, these people, who have no idea what I've done working on the WotC brand, and who don't play or understand the games or even the Harry Potter property, come to the meeting and start telling the WotC client how she should be marketing the game.  The Corporate person backed them up.  This was all very surprising to the WotC client (Kathryn) and me because, I had already developed an advertising plan for the Harry Potter Trading Card Game that had been approved by the client and her sales team. 

The Corporate person said that my plan was not "edgy enough" (I have no idea what that means).  The WotC client was noticeably upset and tried to defend what we had done.  The Corporate person started to berate her in front of the entire group at the meeting, so I stepped up to defend my client and mentioned several times how she had solicited input from the sales team at WotC (the people responsible for getting the retailers to carry the product).  The Corporate person told me that I didn't know what I was talking about.

Later on, unbeknownst to me, the Corporate person from Hasbro told one of the people at my agency in New York to call my boss in Los Angeles and have me taken off the business.  My boss was super cool and really liked me a lot, and she actually never had the heart to tell me.  She stood up for me and I didn't find out until much later that this had all happened. 

As it turns out, the majority of my advertising plan was eventually executed, and the Harry Potter Trading Card Game actually performed much better than expected during the launch period in terms of sales and retail support.  Unfortunately, the expectations were super low at this point, so that's not saying a lot.  The designers felt too constrained by the terms of the licensing deal to create anything that was going to be fun whatsoever.  They weren't allowed to develop game mechanics that would create possibilities that didn't happen in the books, which means that the game is not going to be all that fun. 

After this whole thing happened, the account was "transferred" from the L.A. Office to be handled by a media planning team out in New York, which of course made no sense at all since the client was in Seattle, only a 2 1/2 hour plane ride from where I was.  Also, the new team who took over the planning was a bunch of young people right out of college, none of whom had ever played TCGs or RPGs before and didn't consume the type of media that the target would be using.

Don't get me wrong - I'm a big believer in the idea that media planning is media planning - I can help someone sell cars just as easily as I can help them sell cold medicine.  But in this case, when you have an extremely niche hobby and you come across someone who is involved in the hobby and does media planning - well, as they say, that's "pure win."  It should be a no-brainer. 

What did I learn from all of this?  

Well, I learned that I'm not good at playing office politics.  I could see the way the wind was blowing.  The Corporate people were coming in to take over and put the team in place that they liked.  But, I didn't suck up to them.  I had this horribly mistaken belief that work was a meritocracy.  Do an outstanding job and you'll move up.  Now that I'm older and more experienced, I know that's not the case. 

I also learned that good ideas are pretty much going to be trumped every time by the slow-turning wheel of Corporate America.  We, and the designers at WotC, had a lot of good ideas for the brand that were much easier to get done right after the brand had just been acquired by Hasbro.  They had a huge influx of cash to spend on marketing and advertising and product development, but the suits at Hasbro were too busy getting things in order that they didn't really pay attention to what we were doing for a good year or 18 months.  After that time, when they got more involved, decisions were never made.  There was always another "higher-up" who needed to see what was proposed and approve it, but they were always too busy or out of town or something.  Decisions that used to be made in a matter or hours were now made in weeks. 

I learned that I'm much better working in an unfettered environment of peers who all collaborate and share ideas and aren't afraid to try something new just because it's never been done before.  Working on WotC was also the first time that I really bonded with a client and got to know their business beyond just my part of media planning, but in terms of sales, distribution, product development, budgeting, and so forth.  I became more of a business consultant to my client instead of just a "media planner." 

So, based on all of the above, I eventually ended up opening my own agency nearly three years ago.  It's extremely stressful and very unstable in terms of being able to plan out my financial livelihood.  But, I wouldn't trade it for anything. 

That concludes my tale of working on the advertising for Wizards of the Coast. I hope you found in entertaining and educational.  I'd love to hear your comments and questions.  

Oh, yeah.  Another thing I learned - "what goes around comes around."  That Corporate person from Hasbro?  She was eventually fired. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Happy St. Martin's Day (and Religion in RPGs)

In addition to all of the other holidays associated with November 11th (most notably, of course, Armistice Day, or Veteran's Day, depending on where you live, but also the last Binary day most of us will have the pleasure to spend in our lifetimes), today is also St. Martin's Day, aka "Martinmas."

Yes, it's a real holiday, and until relatively recently it was pretty widely celebrated in many parts of Europe.  Before I go to much father, I should point out that I'm not Catholic, nor do I belong to any form of religious practice that venerates saints, so if I get some of these details wrong, you can forgive me. 

Martin of Tours is usually recognized as the first "non-martyr" Saint.  He was born in Turkey to a tribune in the Imperial Horse Guard of the Roman Army, and later on in life Martin himself was required to join a heavy cavalry unit and was stationed in France. 

Legends say that at one point during his career he came across a near-naked beggar in the snow.  Martin took his sword and cut his cloak in half and gave half of it to the beggar (as depicted in the accompanying image).  Later that night, he had a vision that the beggar was actually Jesus in disguise, and afterwards Martin left the army and dedicated his life to the Church, eventually becoming the Bishop of Tours.

There are tons of other legends about Martin, like how children in Europe used to think that Martin hailed the coming of Winter since his Feast Day fall on an ancient "cross-quarter" day.  They would put their shoes outside and during the night, Martin would ride by on his horse and fill the shoes with little horse-shoe shaped cookies.  Parents put cups of water outside on the eve of his feast day because Martin fills the cups with wine instead (since he is the Patron Saint of Vintners).  I could go on and on, but you can get more information by looking online at places like the Calendar of Saints Days or good old Wikipedia.

I still like to try to celebrate Martinmas every year with a dinner for friends and family when I can, and I at the very least have a glass of wine to honor on of the Patron Saints of Wine.

So, you're asking, what does all of this have to do with gaming or geek stuff, Martin?  Well, it got me thinking a long time ago when I found out that there was such a thing as a St. Martin's Day just how widely varied and fascinating our own modern-day religions are, and how much of a missed opportunity I think it is in role-playing games.

In my World of Samoth campaign, I have a monotheistic religion called Ætonism.  To take the place of the "missing gods", if you will, I created 16 Hallowed Patrons (one for each month of the year plus one for each quarterly festival) and any cleric of the religion is required to choose a Hallowed Patron as his sect.  Each sect has its own teachings, religious customs, color schemes, etc.  Basically - it's like having sixteen "mini-religions."  The idea was to make my monotheistic religion a little more varied in scope.  I had always intended to have each player in the campaign pick one of the Hallowed Patrons as their "god" and follow the practices, and thought it might be interesting if some of them belonged to different sects of the same church. 

As it turned out... it seems like people in my group just don't care about religion in their role-playing games. 

We had only one cleric player, who was a multi-class sorcerer (this was/is a 3rd Edition/Pathfinder game).  He chose a scholarly-based Hallowed Patron because it fit his character background, which was cool, but that's about where it stopped.  As with typical role-playing games, the characters were going around town slaughtering bad guys as they needed to, and it never occurred to the cleric player that he might want to pray over the bodies of the fallen and perhaps give them the proper burial rights.  I nudged him a bit in that direction and he finally came around, but it usually consists of "My guy says a prayer over the body.  You know, whatever I'm supposed to do." 

It's like playing up the religious aspects is more of a nuisance than part of the character's background.  

For the other players, religion is pretty much a non-issue.  From the start, nearly everyone, with the exception of one player (Malinda, who was a newbie), chose the route of saying, "My character doesn't follow that religion.  He doesn't believe in organized religion."  I tried a bit to discourage this type of modern thinking (can you imagine a peasant in 13th Century England saying, "I don't believe in organized religion"?), but I was trying to be very conscious of not forcing someone to play a character they don't want to play.  

So, to this day, over 10 years later, the cleric player is still with us, but he is the only one following one of the religions I created for my campaign.  

While the spiritual aspect of religion has been downplayed, we have played up its political aspects quite a bit, and that itself has been the source of many of the more interesting and memorable sessions during my campaign.  But, I'll save that for another post.

How do you all use religion in your games?  Does it end up being window-dressing only, like in my campaign? (Actually, I don't even think you can call it window-dressing in my campaign - it's that unimportant to the players).  Or does it take a central role?
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