Thursday, June 16, 2016

Remembering Cadillacs & Dinosaurs

Dinosaurs were everywhere in 1993. That was the year Jurassic Park hit theaters and smashed box office records. It also was the year two other major dinosaur films were released – Super Mario Bros. and We’re Back – although both would quickly be forgotten. Meanwhile, on television, U.S. broadcaster ABC aired the rebooted Land of the Lost. Fox Kids debuted Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, a live-action show about teenagers who fought giant monsters with robot dinosaurs. And in the same time slot on CBS, a new cartoon called Cadillacs & Dinosaurs hit airwaves. It never had a chance.

Thirteen episodes of Cadillacs & Dinosaurs aired between fall 1993 and early 1994. Based on the cult comic book series Xenozoic Tales by Mark Schultz, the cartoon was the creation of Steven E. de Souza, a screenwriter who gave us the classic action film Die Hard (and would later write and direct the not-so-classic movie adaption of Street Fighter). All kids needed to know about the show’s setting was explained in the opening credits:

“In the 26th century, mankind faces an epic struggle for survival. The forces of nature have spun wildly out of control. Mighty cities have crumbled and the dinosaurs have returned to reclaim the Earth. In this savage land, one man stands alone: Jack Tenrec. Defending humanity in world gone mad… a world where only the strong survive… a world of Cadillacs & Dinosaurs.”


Sounds awesome, doesn’t it? I certainly thought so. I was a teenager at the time, so I was outside the age range of the target audience. Still, I was a dinosaur-obsessed teen, and here was a cartoon stuffed with dinosaurs. Plus the setting fascinated me: A future post-apocalyptic Earth where dinosaurs had returned? How did the planet get that way? Why are the last humans holed up in crumbling cities? And why are they crossing the landscape in souped-up Cadillacs?

Cadillacs & Dinosaurs follows the adventures of Jack Tenrec and Hannah Dundee. Jack is part mechanic, part Greenpeace activist. His mission is to protect the environment from the same human follies that led to a global cataclysm centuries earlier. The irony is Jack goes about his work traversing the landscape in rebuilt 1950s Cadillacs, although the cars have been modified to run on clean-burning dinosaur poop. Hannah is his partner and potential love interest. She is a scientist and diplomat from a neighboring tribe of survivors. The two don’t get along at first, mostly because Jack is an annoying jerk who insults Hannah every chance he gets. By season’s end the two have developed something approaching romantic feelings for each other, although in the world of early ‘90s cartoons, knowing glances between characters were about as sexual as children’s entertainment got.

Cadillacs & Dinosaurs was much more child friendly than the comic on which it was based. (I didn’t discover the latter until years later.) Xenozoic Tales is punctuated by scenes of gory violence and has nudity and a little sex. The cartoon, on the other hand, was so committed to G-rated violence that even killing dinosaurs was off-limits. Jack was a bit of an ass in the comics, but in the cartoon he is nearly insufferable.  Hannah, unfortunately, is written for the show as something of a bubblehead. Other secondary characters underwent greater changes, perhaps the most notable being a clan of Mad Max rejects who went from being annoyances in the comics to the main antagonists of the series. (Another interesting change is that the human “moles” of Xenozoic Tales have been turned into literal mole men in the cartoon.)

Fans of Xenozoic Tales will appreciate that the cartoon loosely adapts some of the comic’s stories. The best was “Departure,” which takes Schultz’s tale about Hannah's creative solution to a mosasaur problem and expands it by throwing in a crazed warlord and a big-ass tank. The episode is easily the highlight of the series. That said, most stories were original to the cartoon, with the writers pitting Jack and Hannah against Triceratops stampedes, wildfires, and leftover weapons of mass destruction dating from before the cataclysm.

The animation was a bit stiff, being done on a TV budget, but at the same time it was rich in color with well-drawn environments and huge advancements in how dinosaurs were depicted in cartoons. The show’s greatest problem was its writing. Cadillacs & Dinosaurs suffered from bad dialogue, silly characters, and politically correct messaging that left even cranky liberals like myself wishing the writers would tone it down a little. These issues were hardly unique to Cadillacs & Dinosaurs in the world of children’s programming, but transformations were happening in television that made the cartoon something of a dinosaur. Batman: The Animated Series had debuted a year earlier, and it demonstrated that children’s shows could include complex themes and characters and still retain a younger audience (while also attracting older viewers). At the same time, a lot of kids’ entertainment was gravitating toward younger protagonists.  Gone were the days of G.I. Joe and He-Man with their mostly adult lead characters. Instead TV producers gave viewers Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers with its “teenagers with attitude.” Jack and Hannah were practically geezers by comparison.

Still, Cadillacs & Dinosaurs had dinosaurs. It’s right there in the title, and dinosaurs were HUGE in 1993. So why did the show fail?

CBS stuck Cadillacs & Dinosaurs near the end of its Saturday morning programming block, meaning it didn’t air until 11:30 a.m. This in itself wasn’t necessarily a death sentence – Mighty Morphin Power Rangers debuted in the same time slot. But it did mean new episodes of cartoon would often be delayed so the network could instead air sports coverage at that time, particularly on the West Coast of the U.S. It especially didn't help that CBS carried the Winter Olympics that year. As a result, the thirteen episodes that were supposed to make up the show’s first season never ran continuously. Kids might tune in one week and catch an episode, but when they tuned at the same time next week all they found was sports coverage. Children have short memories, so a consistent schedule is needed to build a young audience. A CBS spokeswoman acknowledged this problem in a Los Angeles Times review of the show: “It’s preempted a lot,” she said.

CBS also didn’t go out of the way to advertise Cadillacs & Dinosaurs. But in fairness to the network, the tie-in toy line apparently wasn’t released until after the show was canceled, so there was little to generate demand among kids for more adventures. Only a single commercial was produced for the toys. (Warning: Poor sound quality.)



Cadillacs & Dinosaurs did get a pretty fun beat ‘em up arcade game, but as far as I know it was never ported to consoles. Instead kids had to content themselves with Cadillacs & Dinosaurs: The Second Cataclysm on the Sega CD. The game had great full-motion video animation but its gameplay was boring and repetitive.

So, a bad time slot, a lack of commitment on part of the network, and series of missteps in releasing tie-in toys and games. Also factor in Cadillacs & Dinosaurs was a show behind its time, airing in an era when you needed to either feature children as your main stars or bring a level of maturity to the writing that most kids’ programming had previously lacked. As I said at the beginning of this essay, the show never had a chance.

Criticisms aside, I still enjoy the hell out of Cadillacs & Dinosaurs. You can watch the entire series on YouTube or purchase all episodes for $15 on Amazon. (At least in the U.S. I’m not sure about the show’s availability in other countries.)  I suggest trying a couple episodes before making a commitment to watching all 13. The show definitely isn’t for everyone. As for myself, I admit nostalgia fuels part of my love for the series. Another factor is that I’m fascinated by the world Schultz created in the comics, and seeing it brought to life through animation—even in kid-friendly form—fills me with joy. Yes, I would love to someday get an adaptation that is closer in tone to the comics, but for now Cadillacs & Dinosaurs is a perfectly acceptable substitute.

Anyway, if you want to know more about the cartoon, YouTube blogger AdvertisingNuts has a video explaining the differences between the show and the comics:

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Thursday, June 9, 2016

Voracious by Action Lab Entertainment (2015 onward)

Cover blurb

Haunted by the death of his sister, NYC Chef Nate Willner has lost his desire to cook. Forced to move back to his tiny hometown in Utah, Nate’s life is quickly becoming a dead end. But when he unexpectedly inherits a time travel suit that takes him to the age of dinosaurs, Nate’s passion for cooking is reignited! With a little help from his knife-wielding Grandmother Maribel, and friends Starlee and Captain Jim, Nate opens a restaurant that secretly serves dinosaur meat. Can he survive long enough to make it a success and turn his life around?

My thoughts

Most works of fiction bringing together dinosaurs and people usually have the former eating the latter. Voracious is one of the few examples of a story about people who eat dinosaurs – which, come to think of it, would probably be the more likely result if the two were to meet.

Voracious is a comic book series written by Markisan Nazo with art by Jason Muhr. It is published by Action Lab Entertainment, a small publisher that apparently specializes in offbeat comic titles. As of this post, the series just ended its first four-issue story arc, with the creators promising to launch their second story arc either later this year or early next year. Despite the presence of time travel and dinosaurs, Voracious really isn’t as much sci-fi adventure story as it is television melodrama, focusing on the lives of its attractive young protagonists.

Nate Willner is a former big-city chef of Native American descent who moved back to his hometown in Utah after his sister was killed in a restaurant fire. His life has hit the skids, but luckily he has his elderly grandmother Maribel and his life-long friend Starlee to look after him. He has also inherited $500,000 and a secret lab from his reclusive and recently deceased uncle. During a visit to his new property,  Nate finds a modified diving suit that transports him back to late Cretaceous North America. He is stomping around in the prehistoric past when he is attacked by a Quetzalcoatlus that he promptly kills with a flamethrower, leading to a surprising discovery: Dinosaurs (and pterosaurs) are delicious! Soon afterward, Nate opens a restaurant stocked with meat from dinosaurs he hunts in the Cretaceous. The restaurant is an immediate success, but how long will Nate be able to keep his secret? Can he ever get over his guilt about his sister’s death? Will he reciprocate Starlee’s obvious love for him? And won’t changing the past have consequences for the present?

The neat thing about Voracious is it doesn’t go the obvious route for stories of this type. Most comic book series would have been content with a simpler tale about a time traveler who fights dinosaurs. Nazo and Muhr want to tell a more complex narrative. That is not to say Voracious is high literature. It is soap opera, but it is entertaining soap opera, with likable protagonists and a good sense of humor. My biggest complaint so far is the first four issues are really just the opening chapter of a much larger story rather than a self-contained arc. I’m worried the series will get canceled before the creators have had a chance to finish what they started, given Voracious isn’t the type of tale that normally attracts comic book fans. (No female superheroes in tight spandex outfits or over-the-top violence.)

The art is competent if nothing to write home about. Human characters look a bit stiff, lacking the dynamism of living beings. The same is true of the dinosaur depictions. I get the sense the artist is still perfecting his craft, so it will be interesting to see how the illustrations evolve as the series continues.

Nitpicking aside, Voracious is a comic I plan to continue following. It's quirky and I appreciate that it's trying to do something different. I just hope sales are strong enough to allow the creators to finish the tale they want to tell.

Trivia
  • The first four issues of Voracious will be published as a single volume on August 10. In the meantime, you can purchase them individually online through Comixology.
  • The author’s website is markisan.com while the artist’s website is jasonmuhr.com. Both contain examples of artwork from the series.
  • Voracious isn’t the first comic book about time travelers who harvest dinosaurs for meat. As far as I can tell, that distinction goes to Flesh, which first appeared in the British anthology comic 2000AD in 1977. If the title sounds familiar, that’s because 2000AD also gave us Judge Dredd.
Reviews

Friday, June 3, 2016

Finally, an explanation for all the dinosaur erotica on Amazon

A while back I weighed in on the proliferation of erotic stories featuring dinosaurs - a genre that exploded after Amazon’s self-publishing program took off.  At the time Christie Sims was the undisputed master of dinosaur porn, but over the past year that title has shifted to Montana author Chuck Tingle. I didn’t have a good explanation about why dinosaurs were featured in so many erotic stories. Turns out the online publication Vice found an answer, and it is, well, odd.

In “How to Make Money Writing Kindle Erotica,” journalist Livia Gershon spoke with several writers who pen self-published erotica through Amazon. Basically to be successful in the business, authors need to be able to produce a lot of copy and write about a wide range of sexual fetishes, even if they don’t find many of them appealing. Most writers quickly burn out, but a few have found writing erotica to be more financially rewarding than writing “serious” fiction.

Amazon provides a great vehicle for self-published authors, but the site has rules about what stories it will and won’t accept. Randy Johnson, the (obvious) pen name for a moderator of a popular erotic author subreddit, says Amazon bans stories featuring bestiality, but only for living species. Stories about sex with extinct and make-believe animals are okay as far as the company is concerned. That’s why you will never see “Pounded by the Panda” on Amazon. On the other hand, “Gaygent Brontosaurs: The Butt is Not Enough” is perfectly acceptable.

Just don’t expect to make a fortune with your brilliant mash-up of Jurassic Park and Fifty Shades of Grey. Despite the media attention such works get, Johnson told Gershon that dinosaur erotica doesn’t sell well:
"The vast majority of sales (which are very few) [for dinosaur erotica] are people interested in the novelty of it," he said. "If you don't get some media scandalmongering about it, you'll probably get close to zero sales."
My advice to any would-be dinosaur erotica authors? Don’t get discouraged. Maybe you won’t make much money, but you may still win a Hugo award.

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Thursday, June 2, 2016

Dry Bones by Craig Johnson (2015)

Cover blurb

When Jen, the largest, most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton ever found surfaces in Sheriff Walt Longmire’s jurisdiction, it appears to be a windfall for the High Plains Dinosaur Museum — until Danny Lone Elk, the Cheyenne rancher on whose property the remains were discovered, turns up dead, floating face down in a turtle pond. With millions of dollars at stake, a number of groups step forward to claim her, including Danny’s family, the tribe, and the federal government.

As Wyoming’s Acting Deputy Attorney and a cadre of FBI officers descend on the town, Walt is determined to find out who would benefit from Danny’s death, enlisting old friends Lucian Connolly and Omar Rhoades, along with Dog and best friend Henry Standing Bear, to trawl the vast Lone Elk ranch looking for answers to a sixty-five-million-year-old cold case that’s heating up fast.

My thoughts

Today the fossilized remains of Sue the T. rex are the centerpiece of the Field Museum in Chicago, but in the early 1990s those “dry bones” were at the center of the largest legal battle in paleontology. I won’t go into the details about the case other than to warn you against watching Dinosaur 13, the terrible, one-sided “documentary” made about the whole sordid affair. (Two good takedowns of the film can be found here and here.) The most you need to know for this review is the fossil ultimately sold at auction for more than $8 million, and the legal wrangling around Sue was the inspiration for Dry Bones, a murder mystery starring the popular Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire.

I have never read a Longmire novel before Dry Bones and while I was dimly aware of the TV show based on the book series, I haven't watched any episodes. That said, each book is largely a standalone novel. Prior knowledge of what has come before isn’t required, but it certainly helps when it comes to understanding the relationships between characters. Longmire himself is part Wyatt Earp and part Sherlock Holmes: A college-educated cowboy who is as comfortable speaking Latin as he is riding in the saddle. He is the sheriff of Absaroka County,  a fictional Wyoming county bigger than Rhode Island in terms of land area but with only 30,000 residents. Dry Bones begins with Longmire and his Deputy Sheriff/lover Vic Moretti investigating the death of Danny Lone Elk, a Native American rancher who seemingly drowned while fishing. The problem is Lone Elk was the only person able to verify the ownership of Jen, a huge T. rex skeleton claimed by both the local museum and the rancher’s family. Longmire comes to suspect that Lone Elk’s death wasn’t the accident it seemed, and he is pretty sure the killer’s motive has something to do with the multi-million dollar fossil everyone is fighting over.

Dry Bones is a well-written crime novel but not a very satisfying one for readers new to the series. The first half of the book focuses on a subplot that I’m sure will have a major emotional wallop for longtime fans, but for the rest of us it seems an unnecessary diversion from the central mystery. That said, the subplot is dropped midway – as is a major character – and the story kicks into high gear when minor characters start disappearing and Longmire begins to unravel why Lone Elk was murdered. The identity of the killer isn’t hard to puzzle out, but the author throws in enough twists to keep you guessing how events will unfold.

As far as criticisms, I was annoyed that the case against selling scientifically valuable fossils was made through the mouth of a character who embodied every bad stereotype about government employees. The author obviously wasn’t interested in a nuanced portrayal of the issue. Also, magic is real in Longmire’s world. The main character experiences visions portending to future events and his best friend is a clich├ęd Native American shaman who dispenses sagely advice. Not sure why the inclusion of magic bothered me so much – it just seemed at odds with the otherwise down-to-earth tone of the novel.

Overall I enjoyed Dry Bones but suggest you read some of the earlier books in the series before picking this one up. There is a major development in the novel that I’m sure will have huge implications for the characters moving forward, but without some grounding in their backstories, it doesn’t have the narrative heft that it should. Dry Bones is the 16th novel in the Longmire series, so you have some catching up to do.

Trivia
  • The title is taken from the religious tune of the same name, which itself was inspired by the Bible verse about a “valley of dry bones.”

Reviews