What’s Going On In Alley Oop?


I know, I bet you all thought I was going to go from The Amazing Spider-Man over to The Phantom, as that’s the other newspaper-syndicated superhero comic strip. I admit I’m not sure when’s the last time I saw Alley Oop in a newspaper. It might have been decades ago at my grandparent’s house, when I also saw The Amazing Spider-Man there on the cover of the New York Daily News comics section and nowhere else. (People with records of the Daily News comics page offerings, please write in to let me know if that’s possible!) Big deal. It certainly used to run in newspapers, and for all I know it still does. It looks like one. Plus it’s easier to explain than The Phantom and I had a week far to distracted to deal with complicated strips.

Alley Oop.

So, Alley Oop started in 1932 by V T Hamlin as essentially a sitcom/adventure strip. It was about Alley Oop and his prehistoric land of Moo. He’d do caveman-type stuff, like adopting a pet dinosaur Dinny and being alternately indispensable to or on the run from Moo’s King Guz. Sometimes they’d be in the sort of low-scale war with Tunk’s neighboring kingdom of Lem that you got in those days when the world had maybe twenty people in it. Hey, caveman comics and cartoons were a viable thing back then, and if the whole genre’s been taken over by The Flintstones that’s not the fault of the properties working a generation before them.

And surely Alley Oop would have gone wherever rambling story comics go if not for a 1939 tale (recently reprinted by Dark Horse, so you can read it in book form). In that, the brilliant 20th-century scientist Dr Elbert Wonmug, testing out his time machine, plucked Alley Oop into the present day and suddenly the strip had that touch of madness that allows for greatness. A mildly humorous adventure strip about cavemen is fine enough. But a mildly humorous adventure strip about time-travelling cavemen? That’s brilliant. I don’t know how the thing has resisted adaptation into a goofy 70s live-action show or a modern movie.

So it’ll say something about the strip that the 20th, now 21st, century scientist is Dr Elbert Wonmug. Do you get it? Because I had been reading the strip reasonably faithfully for like six years before someone, I think an essay at the front of a collection, explained it to me. How would you translate won (one) mug into German?

I mention that not for it being the record-holder in me only belatedly getting the joke, as it’s not. There’s a Far Side cartoon that holds that record at something like 15 years before I got it. I mention it to calibrate the sort of humor the strip has. It’s never a thoroughly serious comic, and a lot of silly business does go on, especially slapstick. But it’s not primarily a joke strip. If something’s funny it’s because there’s an absurd situation, such as (last year) Guz deciding that the fantastically unqualified Alley Oop should be the kingdom’s doctor. Alley Oop didn’t do very well. But I think that’s because the whole storyline was (in-universe) done in a couple of days, and nobody’s at their best their first week on the job. He’s pretty good at picking up stuff; anyone who can go from primitive Moo to 1939 Long Island with only a few missteps has got solid resources.

'How do you fit in that little [spaceship]?' 'The compartment is simply a product of transdimensional engineering! In other words, the interior exists in a different dimension than the exterior. (Sigh) It's bigger on the inside than the outside!' 'Oh! Why didn't you say that in the first place?'
Jack Bender and Carole Bender’s Alley Oop for the 28th of November, 2016. What tickles me about this is there’s a good shot Alley Oop isn’t bluffing here. I mean, the guy went to the Moon in the 1940s. Transdimensional engineering probably doesn’t throw him that much.

The current storyline started around October of 2016. (There wasn’t a clean break from the previous story, a common feature of Jack Bender and Carole Bender’s writing.) And it’s built on a premise designed to shake seven-year-old me out of watching In Search Of and reading the paranormal-events section of The People’s Almanac 2. Aliens have come to invade Moo.

Oh, they didn’t talk about invading at first. Volzon, of the planet Jantulle, spent some time showing off his superior technology and negging on Alley Oop’s sensor readings. Volzon then declared ancient Earth to be just about perfect for their needs: the Jantulle population’s exploding and their plant-frog-men need colonies. Earth will do nicely. Alley Oop pointed out that their superior technology was no match for his big stick. And it must be said, he’s quite good with sticks. And punching. Alley Oop does pretty well satisfying the gap left by Popeye not really being a comic strip anymore. And then Volzon went and spoiled things by whipping out his mind-control device. That’s about where things stand just now.

'These tendrils absorb sunlight, which is a food source, but they can also give me instant readings on anything with which I come in contact! You, for instance! Interesting! I see you are primarily made of water! There is also protein, fat ... ' 'HEY! This isn't fat! It's all muscle!'
Jack Bender and Carole Bender’s Alley Oop for the 3rd of December, 2016. I admit the strip surprised me since I really would have bet the first newspaper-syndicated comic strip to feature alien tentacle probes would have been Bill Holbrook’s Safe Havens or maybe Brooke McEldowney’s 9 Chickweed Lane.

Of course the Jantulle invasion is going to be foiled. For one, comic strips like this just don’t end in aliens conquering Earth. Not permanently, anyway. For another, we know that since Earth isn’t a colony world of alien plant-frog-men the invasion does come to nought. And it’ll be up to Alley Oop and his team to do something about that. The comic strip, as best I can determine, doesn’t try to pull any nonsense about time travel resulting in alterante timelines or histories or anything like that. There’s the history of how things worked out, and it works out that way because the protagonists of our stories did something about it.

For a premise that’s got time travel baked into it there’s refreshingly little talk about paradoxes, or fixing up a solution by planting the stuff you needed to escape it afterwards. It’s rather like (most of) the old-school Doctor Who serials that way. The time travel is a way of getting to interesting settings. Mostly, of late, they’ve been ancient Moo, or the present day. There was recently a curious story where Alley Oop and his partner Oola travelled to 1941 and left a message with then-contemporary Dr Wonmug. This didn’t threaten the stability of the spacetime continuum or threaten paradoxes or anything; it’s just, history worked out like that.

And yeah, somehow, 1941 Wonmug wasn’t impossibly young nor 2016 Wonmug impossibly old. All the characters are holding at about the same age and if you don’t want to accept that maybe you should read some other comic strip about time-travelling cavemen and their dinosaurs.

'Once you view the situation with a clear head you will see that mine is a superior race and more deserving of this land. When I look at your homeland all I see are abundant natural resources, none of which have been developed! I can promise you'll always have a place in Moo with my people here ... your function will just be different! With all the building going on, the demand for laborers would mean you'd never be expelled!' 'It's starting to sound like slavery!'
Jack Bender and Carole Bender’s Alley Oop for the 1st of January, 2017. I didn’t get the chance to talk about it in the main essay, but I do like the design of Volzon here. It’s got a bit of a frog look, a bit of a plant look, a bit of a Zeta Reticulan Ninja Turtle look. And all wearing a leftover jacket from the Original Series Star Trek movies. It comes together pretty convincingly. Meanwhile, note the gentle social spoofing going on the first two-thirds of this strip.

Oh yeah, the dinosaurs. Dinosaurs and cavemen never lived together, never even got close to together. To my delight the comic strip acknowledged this back in 1939 or 1940, when Hamlin was discovering he had a new premise taking over his comic. They explained how there could possibly be dinosaurs in Moo: they don’t know. Obviously things are more complicated than they realize. So far as I’m aware Hamlin and his successors writing the strip haven’t gone back and filled in some explanation for how this impossibility came about. It’s just part of how this fictional world works. I’m honestly impressed that they resist filling in some explanation. You could come up with any number of explanations that work as long as nobody thinks through their implications. “We don’t know; the world is more complicated than we realize,” though? That’s irrefutable. And it’s even what an actual scientist would say to an unanswerable mystery like that. (Oh, they’d work up hypotheses and start testing, yes, but it would start from an acknowledged ignorance.)

A last note. I’d mentioned with The Amazing Spider-Man the problem story strips have with Sundays. All the soap opera comics adopted a Sundays-as-recap-days policy. The Sunday strip would repeat the action of the Monday through Saturday preceding, a mercy for people who get only the Sunday comics but killing the pacing. Amazing Spider-Man just barrels through Sundays as though nothing weird were going on and trusts people to fill in the blanks. Alley Oop works closer to the soap opera model. Sunday strips largely recapitulate what happened the previous week, but in a clipped, notes-for-class version. The daily strips have more texture, more of the fun little asides filling in plot points. If you were to adapt Alley Oop to another medium, you’d use the Sunday strips to guide the plot and the daily strips to write the scenes.

Volzon zaps Alley Oop with some kind of Apple iRaygun. 'How do you feel, Alley Oop?' 'Great! How are you? Who are you?' 'Great, how are you?' 'Would you mind if I brought my friends here to settle in your land?' 'Not at all! The more, the merrier!' 'Excellent! the mind-control device worked!'
Jack Bender and Carole Bender’s Alley Oop for the 15th of January, 2017. Oh, yeah, the storyline started out with everybody going off foraging for food, which is the sort of thing they need to do and can never finish because there’s extraterrestrials invading or other hassles like that going on. It’s hard living as the protagonist to something.

And the Sunday strips don’t recap the previous Monday-to-Saturday. They recap, roughly, the previous Tuesday to the coming Tuesday. That is, the Sunday strip tells you what’s going to happen the coming Monday and Tuesday. (More or less.) Of course a comic strip about time travelling cavemen would be a little out of synch with the weeks. That just makes sense, surely.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The index dropped five points overnight. No one really knows why but the leading hypothesis is that it’s related to the neap tides because everybody agrees “neap tides” are the best tides. Neap.

124

Some Thoughts Not Keeping Me Awake At Night


I want it clear that I am not being kept awake at night by this thought. I have better things to steal my precious and sorely needed moments of rest from me. But I do have this thought coming. You know how the Voyager spacecraft have some gold-printed records with sounds of Earth, everything from children laughter to greetings from Jimmy Carter to Chuck Berry music, on them? Suppose it is ever picked up by aliens who figure out what the record is and the basics of how to play it. How do we keep them from playing the record backwards?

I know, I know, there’s supposed to be instructions on how to play it that we think aliens clever enough to grab a space probe will be able to work out. But I also know that humans are fantastically sucky at coming up with instructions for things. There’s packages of macaroni and cheese with instructions I find intolerable ambiguities in. Communicating how to set up and play a record to creatures with presumably no understanding of human norms? There’s no chance we’ve gotten that anywhere near right.

And all right, so it won’t be a big problem if a quarter-million years from now some aliens we don’t even know yet hear Chuck Berry backwards. And even if they play the record the right way around we won’t know that they won’t mishear things and come to Earth looking for more Chuck Barris. That’s at least something we get for the bother of being mortals.

Also, you know what? You could use a little Sparks in your life. Enjoy.

Caption This: Discovering How Aliens See Us


'Trip' Tucker and a silver-clad orange alien standing in a technicolor spider-web in space.
From the Star Trek: Enterprise episode “Unexpected”, when the show ventured into any MTv music video circa 1982.

“So, is it true your people learned everything about humans from watching the Sid and Marty Krofft Supershow?”


(And as before, I’m interested what you kind folks make of this scene.)

Popeye, The Ace Of Space


Previously:


One of the 1960s King Features Popeye cartoons I was thinking about including in my review of the various studios’ efforts was a Larry Harmon-produced one titled Ace Of Space. I could find it online, but at a strangely distorted aspect ratio, the sort of thing that makes you wonder if people don’t know how to set their TVs to the right display settings.

The curious thing is that the same title was used for a 1953 cartoon. This cartoon has the same starting gimmick as its 1960 namesake, Popeye getting abducted by a flying saucer and fending off the aliens (a robot, that time); the 1960 version sees Olive Oyl brought along for the ride, though not to much good story purpose.

The 1953 Ace Of Space is a rather famous Popeye cartoon, as it was the series’s venture into 3-D cartooning. That was a fad as short-lived as 3-D movies in the 50s were, but it yielded an entry or two from all the major studios in which, well, they figured out a way to make the studio’s logo three-dimensional and then maybe did one scene with a panning background and that was about it. Famous Studios was not an exception; besides a scene of a Martian being thrown at the camera you’d probably never get a hint this was meant to be seen with 3-D glasses on.

In some ways this is about the last Popeye cartoon for which Famous Studios was really trying; the cartoons they made after this tend to be dull, remakes, clip shows, or blends of these. The artwork’s solid, the story moves along well, and if I’m not overlooking a case this is one is tied for the record of Popeye’s spinach consumption. Even so there’s hints of how the studio was slumping towards irrelevancy: the story draws a lot from the 1946 Rocket To Mars, which starts with a more extremely warlike Mars that gets punched by Popeye into a giant amusement park. The extremes here are watered down versions of those, as if the studio was afraid that the premise of “Popeye in space” demanded too much imagination.

But they’re still trying, and the cartoon’s drama shook me as a child, and still does (particularly, the Atom Apple Smasher scene). As a kid, I also didn’t understand the logic of how Popeye got out of the disintegrator ray aftermath; as an adult, now, I still think the cartoonists didn’t have a good idea themselves. Or they don’t know the difference between disintegration and invisibility, somehow. I’m just saying I see plot holes in this cartoon is all.

Mandrake Gets More So; Also, Math Comics


Last time I had a bunch of mathematics comics to show off I mentioned how Mandrake’s father was being depicted as seeing by his supernatural powers strange worlds where caterpillar-creatures listen to the radio over earphones headsets. I’ve got a fresh batch of mathematics comics to talk about over on that appropriate blog and so I want to point again at Mandrake, as run on the 24th of December this year, and just ask you the question:

Mandrake the Magician's father seems to see alien robots with a six-legged dog.
Fred Fredricks’ Mandrake the Magician rerun the 24th of December 2014: Mandrake’s father describes alien life.

Does that alien robot have dreadlocks?

It’s easy to ask why the alien robot has dreadlocks, although asking it answers the question. We’re almost forced to ask why any alien robots wouldn’t have dreadlocks. I think the bigger question is how does the alien robot have dreadlocks, but that’s only longer if you use certain variable-width typefaces which kern the ‘h’ and ‘y’ together a bit tightly. The real question is why the alien robot dog has six legs when the alien robots seem to have only four limbs, although I bet it’s one of those “why does Goofy walk on two legs while Pluto walks on four if they’re both dogs” kinds of questions.

Groovy Caterpillar Aliens, Plus Math Comics


I didn’t read Mandrake the Magician in the 90s. For one, I still got most of my comics in the newspaper back then, and newspapers don’t run a lot of story strips because they’re pretty awful. Plus Mandrake’s pop cultural moment kind of came and went … I’m guessing sometime during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration? I don’t know. Anyway, I didn’t pay much attention to it until recent years when it got easy to see online every comic strip that is still running, like The Katzenjammer Kids Somehow, and Mandrake is among them.

Or it was, anyway. Last year in the midst of a meandering story the cartoonist had to stop, I believe it was due to health issues, and they reran cartoons from the 90s while King Features decided it didn’t really need to replace him after all. Since then they’ve stuck with mid-90s reruns and I get to see what I missed.

And for the most part it’s been really, embracingly, nutty, in that way a long-running legacy strip that no grownups are watching will get. The previous story — and I need to emphasize that I am not exaggerating or fibbing or intentionally misrepresenting the tale, just reporting what I remember the narrative being — featured Mandrake being abducted 50,000 years into the future, by the Lords of Earth. These Lords were three women, who’d divided the government of post-nuclear-war, paved-over Earth into three departments (Potholes, Time, and Other), brought him to a crystal-glazed replica of his 20th-century home and showed him domed undersea replicas of major cities. They also introduced him to robot duplicates of his friends (who, back in the 20th century, did a quick search of all Earth and couldn’t find him, so were stuck for ideas) and arch-nemesis, until he had enough of this and spanked them, which they found thrillingly novel so they sent him home. And that was it. That was the story.

Mandrake's father envisions alien centipedes grooving out on radio earphones.
Fred Fredricks’s Mandrake the Magician rerun the 23rd of December, 2014.

The current one is that Mandrake’s impossibly old father has come out of the Tibetan Or Whatever Mountains to poke around society, and that’s been mostly a tale of how he got past the customs guy by using his superlative powers of illusion. The past week he’s got into talking about he uses cosmic powers to travel the, er, cosmos, and I am wholly and unironically charmed by the “life unlike our own” shown in today’s strip, the long centipedes wearing the uncomfortable radio-equipped headphones we all used back in 1978. I don’t know where this is going — nowhere, is my guess — but at least it’s delightful along the way.


Of course the meandering and weird flights of fancy in story strips isn’t all I read comics for. I also read them to see what mathematical topics are discussed, and I found a bunch of them, so those are gathered up over on my mathematics blog and if you’d read them over there I’d be appreciative.

Five Nights At Game Informer


Maybe you’ve heard about Five Nights At Freddy’s. I’m dimly aware of it myself. It’s a new horror game that’s based on everyone’s inherent love of being freaked out by Chuck-E-Cheeses, and apparently it’s sufficiently horrifying that my love has had nightmares about the game without ever having played it, inspired just by reading an article about how it isn’t a real horror game because all it does is scare you a lot. (I feel like I didn’t understand the thesis quite right.)

Anyway. This month’s Game Informer magazine just arrived, and it’s titled “The Horror Issue”, featuring your classic cover of Black Thing With A Couple Less Black But Still Pretty Dark Spots In It That I Guess Is The Monster From Aliens in it. Naturally we checked to see if they had anything about Five Nights At Freddy’s.

They don’t. Apparently, Game Informer‘s Horror Issue went to press just in time to miss this year’s big striking horror game that people can’t stop talking about. That’s got to be the Game Informer‘s editors’ worst nightmare, hasn’t it?

So, well played, Five Nights company, well played.

Maybe We Should Just Skip To Second Contacts


A space alligator-cyclops makes ready to throw a boulder at things.
The cover to _Wonder Stories Quarterly_, Summer 1930, provided by PeterPulp of DeviantArt

The Peter Pulp account over on DeviantArt put up this cover, from the Summer 1930 issue of Wonder Stories Quarterly, and I guess it just shows how poorly we all handled First Contact back in the day. Obviously, I don’t know who started the fight, whether the wide-hipped spacemen with the guns or the alligator-cyclops, but as things stand now, the brave spacemen of tomorrow have to figure out a way to carry on their mission despite the near-complete destruction of their Bounce House. I don’t envy them their task. I’ve never been able to recover from more than a goat-hydra chewing on the restraint bar of my Tilt-a-Whirl car.

You know, I am guilty of assuming this is a matter of the alligator-cyclops throwing rocks at the Bounce House. But from just the still scene I don’t know if he’s actually busy removing rocks from it. He might be the hero of this scene, freeing trapped spacekids within, and what is he getting for his trouble? All the bullets he can eat. I bet that’s what happened; isn’t it always like that when you try helping spacemen with Bounce Houses, in your experience?

Questions Inspired By Great Science Fiction Covers of the Past


So, over in the world of DeviantArt, the Peterpulp account has been posting various cleaned-up images of old magazine and book covers. A couple days ago he posted this cover, to Brian Aldiss’s Bow Down To Nul, which I never heard of before either though I’ve heard of Brian Aldiss. Naturally it raises questions, to follow.

Seriously, isn't that Lyndon Johnson fighting off an alien by using a fish?
Peterpulp (of DeviantArt)’s posting of the cover to _Bow Down To Nul_, by Brian W Aldiss.

So:

  1. Is that Lyndon Johnson in the spacesuit there?
  2. Is Lyndon Johnson trying to stab the alien monstrosity by using a fish?
  3. Why?

I suppose the last is the easiest to answer, though. Obviously Lyndon Johnson’s plan is to offend the alien by making it think that he’s not taking the invasion the least bit seriously. The alien will stew over this and feel so offended it’ll go off and invade Vulcan or Endor or someone who’ll try to fight back with something that’s a serious weapon instead. I bet it ends up commiserating with an alien that quit an invasion when the resistance met it with yarn and bags of raked leaves.

Statistics Saturday: The Time of Writing


Time Self-Evaluation
2 Days Before Publication I have no idea what to write
1 Day Before Publication I will never know what to write
12 Hours Before Publication I may never be able even to read again
6 Hours Before Publication Anything would be better than writing
3 Hours Before Publication This might be a marginally acceptable thing to write
2.5 Hours Before Publication This might be the best thing I’ve ever written
2.25 Hours Before Publication This might be the best thing anybody’s ever written
2 Hours Before Publication It’s sad but at least it will do
1 Hour Before Publication I hope nobody I know will read this
30 Minutes Before Publication Maybe I can hide this from everyone
15 Minutes Before Publication With some context maybe they won’t think too much worse of me
5 Minutes After Publication Please nobody mention it to me
25 Minutes After Publication This isn’t too bad after all
2 Hours After Publication Why aren’t people praising me for this?
3 Hours After Publication Why aren’t people praising me more for this?
1 Day After Publication Oh, yeah, that’s why
3 Days After Publication I guess it didn’t break anything to write that
2 Months After Publication Some alien entity using my body must have written this
2 Months, 5 Minutes After Publication That alien entity’s good enough, how can I make it work for me again?

Handwriting in the Modern Age


Since it is the 11th of the month I should make my regular update of how my cursive handwriting has progressed. As everyone knows I’ve lost the ability to write a script “Q”, but that’s because all humanity was drained of that knowledge by that visit of alien space bats who were trying to encourage block letter printing back in 1998, and no blame attaches to me for that. My lowercase “z” continues its gradual slide into being just a little scribbly cartoon of a lightning bolt, and I find today that it’s impossible to tell the difference between me writing the word “tuition” and me crossing out the word “tuition”. This will save time, in all those cases where I write the word “tuition” in cursive, scratch it out, and realize I wanted it there after all, and applications to this department for contexts in which I need to will be accepted through the 18th.