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A Real American Book! 2018 in Review

Tim Finn GI Joe

It’s that time of year again, when I list what I did for this book in the last 12 months and apologize that it’s taking so long! Last year in such a blog post I mused on what it’s like to research and write.

That’s all about the same. I still rely on a smart and funny New York-based producer named Nick Nadel as my editor. I still get wonderful new material from Rhode Island’s Glad Works, a design studio located in of all places Pawtucket. There, graphic designer Liz Sousa takes my finished texts, notes and lists, jpegs, and tiffs, and lays out chapter-magic. Also there, photographer Tim Marshall lights and composes original images of G.I. Joe toys and merchandise with which to populate said chapters. At cultural events like JoeCon and the Ottawa International Animation Festival (not toy-related, but I’m already there with my laptop, so why not show interested parties some finished materials?) I tell people about my research and offer previews of my book. (Chapter 10 makes for a nice preview, and I’ve got the “pitch” of it down pat — it’s a nice mix of behind-the-scenes info on toys, animation, and comics, offers a few fun anecdotes, and I’ve got pictures of people who were there at the time. Nothing says “I’m not messing around” like my photo of a guy in his studio in 1991.)

This continues to all be fun and satisfying when it’s happening, a tad frustrating when a potential interviewee isn’t responsive, and a little sad when everything else (my shop, my teaching gig, Every Day Stuff like getting my car’s oil changed) keep me from sitting down at my computer.

So, what did I do all 2018-and-some-of-2019? (I count my book years from mid-February to mid-February rather than the standard calendar January through December so as to include my school’s winter break, where I make a big “year-end” push.)

I…

-Wrote and posted 10 blog articles here. We can count it as nine since one was a mild housekeeping update. But that number’s up from the last two years. I know many of you love the brief articles showcasing a single toy or piece of art, and don’t need a 10,000 word essay on a convention, so I’m trying to get back to that. (That said, I owe you a 10,000-word essay on a convention.)

-This overlaps with two of the blog posts, but we all said goodbye to two important G.I. Joe alums this year, Russ Heath and Robert J. Walsh. I eulogized them here at ARealAmericanBook!, and it’s all fun and games and toys and nostalgia for us-fans, but it’s a job and life for professionals like them. I’m pleased to have met these gentlemen, and to be able to describe their contributions in my book. I don’t look forward to writing such blog entries in the future, although time does inexorably move forward. But to turn this back to happy news, Heath drew something for me, and Walsh showed me his studio, an object and an experience I treasure.

-Phone-talked with editor Nick on his notes for Chapters 16, 17, and drafts of 18 and 19.

-Started my first draft of Chapter 20.

-Received tweaked layouts from designer Liz for Chapters 11, 13, 14, 15, and 17.

 

GI Joe convention 2018

-Traveled to Chattanooga, TN for the official 2018 G.I. Joe Convention, the last one there’ll ever be. (This is the big write-up I still owe you!)

-Bought a few toys on ebay for photoshoots.

-Bought a few items from the Hakes auction of Kevin Watts’ collection so I could get nice photos of them for the book. While we haven’t spoken in person in several years, Kevin is a friend, and I miss seeing him at conventions. He offered some early encouragement when I was showing the first finished chapters to a select few people a decade back (yes, a DECADE), and had some key networking suggestions.

Executed one new photoshoot with photographer Tim Marshall. That makes photoshoot #17, although it was over two days. Fun fact: The last time we did a two-day photoshoot I counted it as two. I think we’ll do another session later this year, and I have a notion and a hope to travel cross-country to photograph some rare items if I can get the right person to say “yes.”

-Conducted 16 new interviews. One was with a key Hasbro artist (a future revision for Chapter 7!), some were with people pitching Hasbro on outside stuff in the early 1990s (Chapter 18!), others were fans getting organized in the ’80s (Chapter 12!), one was in R&D at Kenner (Chapter 19!), and another didn’t get hired at Hasbro until 2007 (Chapter 20!). Quite the range! A year ago, and two years ago, and three years ago someone asked “When will you be finished?” My answer began with “I need to do two or three more interviews.” Clearly that number was incorrect. These interviews got transcribed and bits from them were seeded into various chapters.

-Visited a Kenner alum in Rhode Island. This was a follow-up to one of those interviews, and I got to see a basement that could only be described as breathtaking (that’s just a sample above) and pick up a killer item for Chapter 19.

-Sent follow-up questions to many previous interviewees. Got back some details and photos.

-Locked in the text, sent images for, and got back the first draft layout of Chapter 16. I’ve been writing this one for years, so to finally see it arranged with images was big. It’s all about 1994, a tale of ups and downs.

-Sort of finished the text for Chapter 18. I don’t know what to do with this. A small part of it is begging for some quotes from a person who isn’t interested in an interview. So it’s finished without this person’s involvement, but I hold out hope I can get a few questions answered. For now I’m finalizing the edit with Nick and moving on.

-This one’s frustrating: Got a lead on a crazy cache of (sorry to be vague) some 1990s treasure that would melt my brain if I could get my hands on even a fraction of it, much less stand in front of it with my hands calmly folded behind my back and my greediest intentions masked by a calm visage. I’ve heard tell of this from two different directions and made my darndest pitch to be allowed access, but with no response. As a pop culture “archeologist,” this makes me quite sad. As a G.I. Joe author, it would serve up one key image — a firsthand, primary object — for a later chapter. I (and all you readers!) can survive without it, and that later chapter has some pretty good proxies, so I’m proceeding assuming nothing will come of this lead.

—Addendum: Bits of that crazy cache seem to be getting out there, so in between starting this blog post a week ago and today I’ve secured that object (or an iteration of it) and I’m most relieved! This didn’t happen with the bang I wanted, and it wasn’t a whimper either. I’m calling it a win.

So what’s left?

I need to get transcribed an interview from last week and track down one person to incorporate some changes into Chapter 12. (This is “NEW Chapter 12,” not “old Chapter 12,” from when 12 and 13 were mooshed together.) I’m so close to a first draft of 12, and then I can send it to Editor Nick. He and I are supposed to go over what I believe is the final text of Chapter 19 next week. Then I can send it plus images to Designer Liz. I’m actually done with the text of Chapter 18, but this one’s a real challenge to find images for because of its content, so I’ve been dragging my heels on sending it to Liz for months. I think it’ll just have to stick out a little, and visually be more words and not so many pictures. Chapter 20, sort of the end of the book, needs a lot of input. Then I need to compare Chapters 1 through 10 with 11 through 20 and make sure the two halves of the book are balanced, which they right now decidedly are not. Then I need to revise 1 through 10 and incorporate some of the interviews I got in the last five years that haven’t been incorporated. Then Designer Liz tweaks those chapters for text changes and art additions. Then I’m done.

Thank you all for your quiet support. Readers and fans, thanks for your continued patience. Please spread the word about this blog to your friends and family who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, or are interested in pop culture history.

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Photoshoot #17

Two weeks back I spent a day and a half at Glad Works so A Real American Book! photographer Tim Marshall could shoot new images for Chapters 12, 18, and 19.

Photoshoots are particularly exciting for me. The day-in and day-out process of writing this book isn’t dramatic. Some days I open up a Word draft and re-read half a chapter to refresh where I was before things got busy, and spend 20 or 200 minutes reworking a paragraph. Other days I’m googling for people, newspaper articles, and images, cross-referencing the year that someone did something. Some days I’m on the phone, asking questions and recording the interview. And still other days editor Nick Nadel and I are on the phone, him suggesting style changes and asking for factual clarifications after I’ve turned in a chapter draft. These are all fun. The non-book kind of day is at my shop or at school, moving boxes or showing films to students, thinking “I should open up a chapter when I get home and work on the book,” but then it’s time to make dinner or take a cat to the vet or get the oil changed or plan for more boxes at the shop or films at school. There are also days where I scan or photocopy G.I. Joe assets, but there’s been less of that these last few years.

Three kinds of days revolve around photography: 1) Working on an image index for designer Liz Souza. That means comparing a print-out of a finished chapter text with all the assets on my hard drive and loosely typing up a list of what images should go roughly with what paragraphs. Then Liz works her magic and few months later I get to 2) look over a designed chapter pdf. Some pop immediately as successful and done, others I need to live with for a few days, and add, remove, or move images. And then there’s the photoshoot. That’s “3).”

Glad Works has a dedicated studio room for photography. Shelves filled with objects and junk offer hues, textures, and props for backgrounds. Saw horses and a wooden platform make for a moveable table. Lights on stands provide illumination, and gels provide color. The first photoshoot, way back in 2008, was a kind of sketch. I had a sense of what I wanted, but there wasn’t much concrete connection between what was in that first chapter and what we shot, it was more “let’s shoot some loose ’82 figures and see what happens.” The results were helpful for the first chapters that Liz designed, but as the whole book and the feel of each chapter has developed, it appears that few if any of these earliest photos will make the final cut. That’s fine. Later and more recent shoots have been closely linked to content in a chapter — This chapter references the Coleco Rambo toys, so let’s take a picture of Coleco’s Rambo.

Here’s my list for photoshoot 17:

This was actually a two-day shoot. We did the hard stuff the first day, and then I went back the next (a Friday, hence the “F”s above) and we finished. The studio is an hour-plus drive from my house, so one of these days is exhilarating and tiring. A second day is less of one and more of the other. But a session at Glad Works yields concrete progress, good for the book and great for my state of mind.

Here’s photographer Tim Marshall and extra-pair-of-hands Liz as we set up for a Hall of Fame picture. This is before Marshall devised the lighting, so this bit of behind-the-scenes “magic” isn’t spoiling what the final image will look like.

A week and a half later, Marshall sent me the contact sheet. Here it is very small so that I’m not spoiling anything:

Two of these photos are easy to incorporate. They’re replacements for placeholder images on mint-in-package toys I pulled off ebay. At some point I’d track down my own examples of these toys, we’d shoot them, and Liz would pop them in. The rest of these are for chapters I’ve been recently working on, and mean Liz can move ahead with almost-final design, for which I’ve been most anxious! I anticipate needing another two photoshoots in 2019.

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Remembering Robert J. Walsh

Robert J. Walsh died last month. This is sad news.

I had the pleasure of meeting Rob for lunch in Los Angeles three years ago, and I’m going to jump to the middle of the story here for some levity and type three important words: Guitar-shaped pool.

But let’s start at the beginning.

In 1983, G.I. Joe, a TV cartoon, debuted. Music by the talented Johnny Douglas. In 1984, more G.I. Joe aired, music by Douglas as well as Rob Walsh. (Why the addition? Read my book to find out!) Rob wrote and composed a lot of music for Marvel Productions (that’s the animation company in Los Angeles, separate from the comics publisher in NY), and man, did it sound great. One of the points I wish to make over and over about the G.I. Joe (and Transformers!) cartoons is that they were great because the producers in New York had high standards and spent money. They wanted these shows to be great. It’s not just G.I. Joe fans really love G.I. Joe and their nostalgia elevates that show. The show was great. Can’t tell the difference? Just watch most American TV animation from the 1970s. That was the landscape into which G.I. Joe was born. Things were bad and then they got better. Music was a part of this. Johnny Douglas (who died in 2003, so no mourning over him today) and Rob Walsh made that music.

After Carl Stalling died, Walsh scored for Friz Freleng’s later Pink Panther work, and then he made a bunch of music for Marvel. I figured Rob’s involvement in writing a library of cues that were used for dozens of episodes of Real American Hero was worth a paragraph or two in my book, so I needed set up an interview.

We spoke by phone in the summer of 2015. I got a few great facts and quotes I knew I would work into my book. But I was going to be in Los Angeles soon after, and was there any chance we could meet in person? Part of this is elementary. It’s nice to shake someone’s hand and put a real face to a voice, and I could follow up with additional questions in the moment. Rob’s website mentioned a guitar-shaped swimming pool, which I jokinging said I wanted to see. This had been described online in a biographical section of one of Rob’s websites (he owned a few music-related businesses).

One of the amazing aspects about researching and writing this book is that I get to occasionally witness history. I don’t mean that to sound grand. History was finding a dusty 35mm print of My Little Pony: The Movie in a box (two boxes, actually) under a desk in the back closet of Sunbow Entertainment in July of 1998. No one in the office cared, but it was a shock to me. Before I visited Rob, he’d announced a year or three earlier that he’d made a deal with Hasbro and a record label to release some of his 1980s cartoon music. By the time I was standing in front of him, he was actively remastering it from mag reels, digitizing the original tracks, cleaning them up, and adjusting them in Pro Tools. We met for lunch, talked about recording this music all those years ago, his trouble releasing a CD of X-Men music, and his excitement for the release of the ’80s material. I had taken a cab, so we jumped in his car and drove just a mile down the road to his house. There, I saw the kinds of props, instruments, and trophies that one expects to see in the abode of a professional musician, one who’s been doing this for decades. It was also perfectly L.A. I haven’t been in a house like this before, but from movies and TV, it felt familiar and funny in a way. And my buddy plays in a band, so seeing a bunch of guitars made sense:

And pedals:

I stuck my head outside. Indeed, the guitar-shaped pool was there! I write this gently, and not to poke fun, but is there anything more perfect than a musician living in Los Angeles with a guitar-shaped pool?

He took me to the back rooms, introduced me to two nice young folks who were busy at computer workstations, wearing headphones. They were interns or employees, and I have a recollection that one may have been one of Rob’s kids. I introduced myself, told them how excited it was to be there, and tried not to get in their way. I’ve occasionally visited a G.I. Joe alum’s home and I don’t want to appear like a salivating collector there to swindle someone out of rare art or toy prototypes. I’m mostly looking for information, and again, the act of meeting this person in person. A few times such a visit has netted me something concrete, like an old photograph, and yes, occasionally I’ve bought some rare art or toy prototypes. This wasn’t that kind of visit — just a follow-up for information.

Rob pointed to a densely packed closet-full of reels. I gasped.

I’ve been digitizing old film and videotape in my personal archive, and I have many out-of-date formats in need of rescuing. At home is a closet-full of DAT tapes, Video 8 tapes, and 16mm and 35mm negatives and release prints, so seeing something like this in Rob’s studio felt familiar. It made me anxious, but also happy and relieved that it was mere inches from the equipment that would “save” it, rather than sitting in boxes in a garage or a storage locker.

We stepped into the mixing room. The set-up was impressive — huge monitors, mixing boards, more gear, a sound booth, framed art and pictures on the wall. Rob pointed out a few trophies, like the photo with Stan Lee. Up on the massive monitor, several tracks were queued. Rob clicked “play” and an eruption of nostalgic, sonic might filled the tiny room. This was music I knew well and loved heartily. The audio quality was impressive — uncompressed WAV files, and I could hear all the instruments in this orchestra like I was in the original recording session. This was not crunched down to mono, broadcast across a timezone, and filtered through my 16-inch TV set’s speaker. The bass of the drums rumbled through the room, the strings swelled and roiled, and the horns surged into my ears. This was a music cue I’ve always identified with Zartan, what I would call a “creeping theme.” I laughed aloud, nervously — relief, the tingling joy of nostalgia, the physical need to push back against all the changes in air pressure as the soundwaves rocked around and through us. I probably said “Oh my god!” a few times. Like that My Little Pony film print in New York, this felt almost disorienting. How was I lucky enough to be here, hearing this, learning about this? Surely this was only a space, an experience, for professionals, or people who had contributed originally, someone like Rob. I wasn’t an invader, and I had been welcomed into this studio, but it still felt like this wasn’t for me. It was too rarified. But Rob had a big smile on his face, and he was going to (hopefully!) make some money off this, and fans would get what they’d been asking for, so it was, after all, okay that I was there.

Despite all of the digital tech, the “Protools HD-3 station, a digital automated console, a 9-foot 1080p HD Digital Projection room with 5.1 surround sound [which] has accomodated ADR, sound fx editing, sweetening and mixing,” as the website states, I loved seeing the analog stuff, too.

A few steps away was the recording booth, with acoustical foam, a mic, and even more guitars.

Rob had to step out for a minute, maybe to take a phone call. I couldn’t help myself, so I pulled out my phone, clicked “record,” and tapped “play” on the mouse in front of me. It was hard not to ruin the recording with my own giddy laughter.

Rob came back in, I took a photo of him, and one of his employees took a photo of us. Rob offered to take a picture of me in the booth. Now this is not where G.I. Joe voice actors recorded, but this is still a special space, where Rob and his peers made music. I’ve spent a little time in sound booths at colleges and studios on the East Coast, but again, this is a pro’s space, so I wasn’t going to say no. I mugged it up, and chuckled.

Rob signed one of those X-Men CDs that some legal maneuvering precluded him from selling, and handed it to me. I said thanks, thanks to his two employees, and hopped a cab.

Two small postscripts:

1) Why was I in L.A. in the first place? To visit family. My wife, Ellen, and I were out with her brother, Owen. But they knew I was taking this book-excursion, and “guitar-shaped pool” had become a shorthand joke for it. I was going to talk with the guy with the guitar-shaped pool. But Owen is a musician and around my age, and he was a G.I. Joe fan in the ’80s, too. So he understood that this wasn’t just lunch, but a fun and important rendezvous. I departed to meet Rob, and after leaving his studio, headed back directly to were I’d left my family. They were anxious to hear how it’d gone. I was ecstatic. Rob had played G.I. Joe music for me on this gigantic, deafening system! We three got into Owen’s car, and I was trying to describe how moving it all was, when Owen said “Wait, I can patch your phone into my car!” So we listened to that clip above, just the audio, in Owen’s otherwise unimpressive 4-door sedan. But car interiors are actually great acoustical environments, and Owen’s had great speakers. So Owen and El got to hear, just an hour after I did, this raw, loud, lush 1985 recording of a full orchestra belting out gorgeous 1980s theme music. Where I can share my excitement for all of this research, the book-writing, the meeting of fascinating people who’ve worked on G.I. Joe, I am thrilled. This was definitely that, all squeezed into an intimate, tiny space.

2) Four months later Rob emailed and asked if I would write some questions for him. He wanted to include interviews with people who’d worked on the Marvel/Hasbro cartoons as bonus features for his eventual music releases. I explained that the Rhino and Shout! Factory DVDs had covered that ground, but I was happy to do it anyway. Rob’s plan was to release the music remixed in 5.1 and on Blu-ray. I voted for vinyl instead. There may be a few audiophiles out there who will just listen to a Blu-ray in a home theatre, but this felt too much like a minority of a minority. (Also, I didn’t have a Blu-ray player, but would definitely buy a CD release!) Wouldn’t a Record Store Day release create some buzz? I don’t know if Rob conducted the interviews, and however the calculus ended up, when the Transformers music was released this past August it was indeed on vinyl, but I don’t take any credit for that.

I don’t know the state of any other music from the Walsh/Douglas/Hasbro library, but I hope we’ll get an official release of the G.I. Joe material. And I offer my condolences to Rob’s family and collaborators.

 

 

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A Real American Book! 2017 in Review

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Photoshoot #16

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A Real American Book! 2016 in Review

A Real American Book! Year In Review 2016

It’s been another year, so here’s an update on my progress since the last Year in Review. As always, teaching and retailing take up much of the week, so writing happens mostly over vacations.

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A Real American Book! 2015 in Review

A Real American Book! Year In Review 2015

It felt good, a year ago, to put into words all that went into writing this G.I. Joe book, so I’m doing it again. Many things repeat from last year, and a few things are new. And there is — good news — some progress.

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