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Some Kind of Wonderful Life

It's easy to view Capra's It's a Wonderful Life as a simple morality play, a light confection complete with an angel named Clarence, ringing bells and an ultra-happy ending; all elements of what many have come to call Capra-corn. But there's more at work in this movie, an examination of the dark side of the American dream, and signified by more than just the twenty-minute film noir nightmarish interlude. It's why the movie has become such a holiday staple and has stood the test of time. If it was all just frosting, one wonders whether it would have become the phenomenon it has? wonderfullife01.jpg Certainly, the humor, fantasy, theatricality and overt romanticism of It's a Wonderful Life make it easy to watch and a sheer pleasure, even (or perhaps especially) upon repeated viewings. Within the first few minutes, most are weeping already as young George is slapped around before Old Man Gower realizes what George has done for him. There are fanciful references to travel and adventure, a young girl whispering her undying love, and an unending cast of characters that make the viewer feel right at home with George and Bedford Falls, almost as if they'd grown up there themselves. wonderfullife02.jpg As lovable as the town is, though, George can't wait to escape. He's filled with hope and an anxious yearning to "see the world" and do and build Big Things. This kind of dreaming big is quintessentially American, the idea that regardless from where one comes, something bigger and better can actually happen. George (and many Americans) are sometimes setting themselves up, and many times do not realize other dreams worth living right in their own backyard, right in front of their faces. wonderfullife03.jpg With Peter Bailey (George's father, who's already earned his wings, as the butterflies behind him in the photo above attest) and in Mary, especially, the possibilities for a wonderful life for George right in his home town are made abundantly clear. But it's not enough for George. He's got something else in mind, something he believes will make him happy. Perhaps it's because he wants something from life just different from the one he knows, something beyond what his father has achieved before him. wonderfullife04.jpg His father's death, and then his brother's departures keep him shackled to the tiny town, delaying and snuffing out his dreams. Due to circumstance and out of a sense of obligation, George does what he has to do, all along hearing train whistles, looking out on the horizon and building toy bridges and train sets, in feeble attempts to keep lit the fire of his long-held passion. wonderfullife05.jpg All throughout the movie, George's frustration is palpable, even during the angriest marriage proposal ever to soul mate, Mary. He's constantly kicking things, then screaming at people, even his own family. This sense of suffocation or claustrophobia is what makes Potter's offer of employment and riches so tempting, if only for a moment. Now, Potter is cartoonish and a gross stereotype, and many will say this is then an indictment of capitalism. But one can say the Bailey's could have run their business a bit more efficiently, and if George had taken the route his hee-haw pal Sam Wainwright did, it may not have been all bad. It's just another path, another choice. After all, Sam offers George many chances to do well financially, and really comes through in the end, with cash when George needs it most of all. That Sam the businessman isn't a bad guy. The point for George isn't that his life is better because he stayed at the Building & Loan, it's that when he stayed, he would've been better off being more happy in his choice. wonderfullife06.jpg Thanks to the bumbling Uncle Billy, money troubles provide the trigger for the years of aggravation to come boiling up for George and spill over. At a point of absolute desperation, he destroys the symbols, therefore the possibility of his big dreams, lashes out at his children and others, finally praying to a God in which he's not sure he believes for guidance and help, ready even to destroy his own life. wonderfullife07.jpg The aid comes in a form unexpected to George, a 200-plus-year-old angel who favors Twain. Amidst the fantasy and comic relief, George is thrown into a nightmare of his own wishing, a world where he's never been born. In a movie so full of laughs, life and joy, George finds himself staring into the abyss, a vision far worse than never achieving that for which he's always strived. Before he finds the abyss staring back at him, he pulls himself from the brink, begging for his life to return. For so long, all while searching for and following his bliss, he hasn't truly appreciated all he has, all he's accomplished, whose lives he's positively affected. While pursuing happiness, he's missed countless opportunities to choose to be content, even if it's not all for which he's ever dreamed. wonderfullife08.jpg Even with the happiest of happy endings, one can not say George will live the rest of his life in utter contentment, that he'll let go of those old dreams, but one can hope that he's seen the light, that he (and us, the viewers) will be a little more appreciative of what he's got, and the loved ones who surround him. One thing's for sure, as we see those same butterflies reappear in the last scene, Clarence is not the only one who's earned his wings.


Raining Snowmen

snowmen.jpg More of the Fingerhut snowman I posted the other day.


Elven Pie

pie_elves.jpg These were prepared for a series of two-color stickers for Mrs. Smith Pies some years back. I preferred my initial elf sketch, but they wanted something cuter. It's not always easy for me to figure as an artist why a client wants one thing over another, especially when I'm attached to a certain drawing that's rejected. That's the way it goes, though, and I did the second elf, no problem. At least I've got a place here now to show my other li'l elf.


Who Needs Proof?

I've been reading more comics again of late. I went to a comic book shop last week for the first time in over a year, and picked up PROOF #2 (from Image Comics), which is written by a friend of mine, Alex Grecian. I've seen it in some form or another over the last year and a half, from the earliest pages, pre-publication. But it's quite another thing thing to see it all printed, and so nicely, at that. This is one fine book. proof.jpg PROOF is John Prufrock, otherwise known as Bigfoot. He works for The Lodge, an underground U.S./Canadian cooperative which protects mammals and other weird creatures from each other. In this first story arc, "Goatsucker," the reader follows rookie Lodge agent, Ginger Brown as she meets her new large, hairy partner, as well as other members of the lodge, including faeries, jackalopes and dodos. They team up in their inital case here to deal with the goatsucker itself, Chupacabra, or Mexican Bigfoot. This comic is creepy, humorous, thoughtful, and tons of fun to read and look at. Grecian and artist and co-creator Riley Rossmo are enthusiastic collaborators, giving readers plenty of bang for the buck. The stories and characters and the world they inhabit are dense and well thought out. The art is unique, rough, experimental, and pulls you in. A myriad of facts, asides and musings are interspersed throughout in the form of pop-up Cryptoids, a clever device that adds depth and insight, slowing the pace down nicely to avoid a too-quick read. If that weren't enough, each issue features a back-up that's integral to story, and there are many pages of articles, essays and letters to round things out. Rossmo's art is lively and organic. Though stylistically different, he reminds one of a young Paul Pope, experimenting from one style to the next, not letting anything slow him down. Energetic and prolific, he makes this fellow artist jealous. As for the writing, Grecian knows what he's doing. These two together are passionate about PROOF, are well ahead in terms of production and are ready for the long haul. A great thing about this book is that one can read it lightly and just for fun, and it works well in that vein. But if one wants to dig deeper, there's a lot going on under the surface that become more clear upon multiple reads. For example, let's examine Prufrock's name. Taking its cue from an early T.S. Eliot poem, we find that character feeling alienated and disappointed with the society in which he lives. No doubt our Bigfoot hero feels like he doesn't fit in. He may be a mammal, but not one of us, so provides a no-longer-missing link between humans and the other creatures you'll find in this fascinating world. There's a bunch more I could write about, but the highest compliment I can pay these guys is that for the first time in a few years, PROOF has me eagerly awaiting a monthly comic as its released. I've read issue #3 and could easily request more in advance from Alex directly, but I want to go on the ride with everyone else. So I've subscribed through It's totally worth it. You want proof? Pick up the comic, too. Third issue is due December 27th.


Another Santa


I've drawn so many Santas over the years, I try to take the opportunity to mix it up by using different styles with the character, as long as it's appropriate for each job. I can't recall for whom I did this particular illustration. Tough to keep track!  Looks like he's holding what was a credit card.  Who ever heard of Christmas being commercialized?!


Not Frosty, but....



A snowman I did some years back for catalogue and online seller, Fingerhut.



Laura in Winter


If not Christmas, this one's in the Winter theme, at least. From about five years back, here's a quick sketch of my daughter Laura. About to board the school bus for another day of kindergarten, she was all decked out for Minnesota weather.


Good Christmas Vibrations

I like to wait 'til at least the day after Thanksgiving, but once that light goes green, it's fun to get in the mood during the season with not only decorations, but with Christmas music, movies and TV specials. Here are a few suggestions, most of which you can find and purchase at our amazon store. Christmas Recommendations It's become something of a cliche to watch It's a Wonderful Life once a year, but that doesn't stop us in our house (I'll have an extended post about that movie in the coming days). A Christmas Story has been an annual favorite since making it's debut in 1983. (The book that inspired the movie is Jean Shepard's short story collection, In God We Trust, All Others Take Cash. Although the rest of the stories are not in the Christmas theme, it's well worth a read.) For gut-busting laughs, nothing beats Will Ferrell in Elf, which also has a a lot of heart while riffing on Rankin-Bass Christmas specials. Zooey Deschanel is a revelation, and her duet on Baby It's Cold Outside with Leon Redbone over the credits is fantastic. Coincidentally, one of the elves in that movie (and a producer of the film) is none other than Peter Billingsley, who plays Ralphie in A Christmas Story. I'd encourage all to read Dickens' A Christmas Carol. It's only fifty or so pages, and one may find in it a few things that may surprise; it's been watered down in many forms and adaptations over the years. I still find the 1951 movie version (with Alastair Sim as Scrooge) the best and most faithful, although the more recent TV version (USA network; 1999) featuring Patrick Stewart is also true to Dickens and has its moments of merit (especially Stewart's take on Scrooge waking up on Christmas morn). In another slim volume, Truman Capote's poignant autobiographical A Christmas Memory, li'l Tru finds a gleem of hope when two lonely souls find comfort in each other's company. William Joyce's Santa Calls is a classic for the whole family, painted in a style reminiscent of N. C. Wyeth, while all Joyce's own. And although I found the movie extremely creepy, Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg is everything the movie is not. xmas07plugs02.jpg After quitting his Bloom County comic strip, Berke Breathed produced a couple fine children's books featuring the penguin who occasionally drops his derriere, Opus. A Wish For Wings That Work is a splendid book that pays homage to and deconstructs the children's classic, Goodnight Moon. An animated adaptation of the book was broadcast in 1991. Long since unavailable, and sporadically seen since, I'm pleased to say it's finally been released on DVD this year. So I can retire my old second generation VHS copy. For goofier, campier Christmas fun, check out the Pee Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special, which packs in more weird cameos and crazy content than any hour-long TV special can usually muster. For more traditional holiday TV fare, the latest DVD of How the Grinch Stole Christmas is far superior to the DVD released a few years back (wherein the Grinch appeared a sickly mustard yellow). And there's nothing like A Charlie Brown Christmas, which not only brings back memories, but still holds up. Keep the glow of that show lingering by listening to the soundtrack by Vince Guaraldi. A big part of why that original show stands the test of time is his jazzy music. For more of the same, Ella Fitzgerald's swinging Christmas album keeps the toes tapping...for me, right to the egg nog! For more relaxing moments, various Windham Hill artists contribute to The Carols of Christmas, which provide a peaceful new age twist to old classics, or A Music Box Christmas. Those glistening chimes filled our house every Christmas when I was growing up in Chicago. There are many more I could mention, and I'm sure you have favorites I've never heard of, and if so, please leave a comment. I'd love to expand the collection. Merry Christmas!


Extraterrestrial Christmas

Alien Christmas

An illustration from our Christmas card circa the end of the last millenium. Aliens like presents, too.


Christmas Elf

Christmas Thanks Elf Over the years, I've done assorted art for various holidays, for friends and family or for presentation on the web. Here's one that was originally done one year as a Thank You card to those from whom we received gifts. In the spirit of the Christmas season, I'll be posting more.