Wednesday, December 17, 2014

W Is for Wilkins and Wontkins

Wilkins and Wontkins are Jim Henson's earliest TV commercial characters. In 1957, he was approached by a Washington, DC, company to produce local ads for Wilkins Coffee. At the time, Jim was doing Sam and Friends, which broadcast live for five minutes each weekday. That show was mainly his characters lipsynching to records, but it was also the place where Jim learned about pacing. With only five minutes--some of that time eaten up by sponsor messages also featuring Muppet characters--Jim learned to maximize the humor potential of the medium in a minimal amount of time, while still managing to experiment.

I've talked before about how Jim used commercials as a way to experiment with design, character, humor, and even the medium itself. His first commercials, the Wilkins Coffee ads, were a real test of his ingenuity, because the ads were only eight seconds long. How could he be funny and deliver a product message in just eight seconds? The answer turned out to be just letting his anarchic spirit loose.

The ads star the cheerful Wilkins, who loves Wilkins Coffee, and the grumpy Wontkins, who won't try it. Generally, Wilkins inflicts some manner of cartoon violence on Wontkins for being such a grump.

Here's just a sampling of Wilkins Coffee ads, and they're generally wonderful. Some of my favorite Muppet stuff in existence.



If you want to see more of them, they're all over YouTube. Jim Henson made 179 commercials for Wilkins Coffee and other Wilkins products from 1957 to 1961.

The characters and the ads were so popular that other companies approached Jim about using the characters, and the ads were remade and used in other markets. Since the ads were all regional, there wasn't any crossover. They were most popular--and lauded--in their home area, though, and Wilkins Coffee even offered vinyl puppets of Wilkins and Wontkins through the mail for one dollar and a coffee can label.

They're apparently very hard to find today, but these are the first ever Muppet toys.

Here are some commercials for other products starring Wilkins and Wontkins.



Even though the Wilkins ads ended in 1961, Jim kept using the characters until 1967. Here are some color ads for Red Diamond Coffee from 1966.



Jim Henson helped to change the course of advertising in the US. Where most television commercials were often tedious and irritating, Jim Henson is often cited as someone who proved that you could sell products with humor.

What these ads also did was help Jim establish the dynamic that would define characters like Bert and Ernie: one sour straight man, and one wild, wacky force of nature butting up against one another. Of course, Jim didn't invent that dynamic--that's straight out of vaudeville and came over to film and television in the earliest days of both media--but Jim's anarchic approach never failed.

I'm nearing the end of my alphabetic Muppet journey, and I'm glad I got to praise these two.

ABC Wednesday

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Marvels: X-Men #5

"Trapped: One X-Man" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Paul Reinman
(May 1964)

This issue really gets to the heart of the problem with X-Men: the X-Men themselves just aren't that interesting. Magneto, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch have a whole thing going on that feels more immediate and interesting than anything going on with the X-Men and Professor X, who are mainly an average collection of angsty teens with no interesting dynamics between them. It's too bad that Stan & Jack, who very quickly turned the Fantastic Four into a family with a complex emotional interplay, couldn't recapture the magic here. With every issue, you can almost feel them trying very hard to pull something out of this, and just not really finding it. This is like The Incredible Hulk all over again, but not as entertaining.

The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants are what make this issue work. And the previous issue. In fact, this is the second of four consecutive appearances by the Evil Mutants, so I'd like to think Sam & Jack could at least see what the problem is here. But who knows? Maybe they thought it worked great.

Professor X spends this issue sidelined after his injury last issue that left him unable to use his incredible mental powers, so he's unable to help as Magneto's Evil Mutants scour New York trying to find the X-Men's headquarters. When they can't, Magneto sends Toad to lure the X-Men out. It's a smart plan: Toad, in disguise, displays his abilities in a way the X-Men take notice of and, eager to continue Xavier's work, they'll come get Toad and bring him back to the school to test his powers (the way they did with the Blob). It almost works, too, but instead it leads to a pretty crazy fight scene between the two teams in Grand Central Station. The fight is so big and intense that I'm kind of surprised a bunch of civilians didn't die. It's not like Magneto cares who gets in his way.

This story really ups the menace of Magneto by portraying him as dangerously unhinged, and that's why the Evil Mutants dynamic is more interesting. No one really trusts anyone there. Magneto right now is an animal backed into a corner--albeit a corner that takes the form of a space station fortress called Asteroid M--raving about how the only way the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants will ever be safe is when the X-Men are dead. He's put aside his quest to conquer mankind until he's eliminated the X-Men.

There's a simmering hatred between Magneto and Quicksilver, too; Quicksilver comes right out and says that the only reason he's with Magneto is to protect his sister, the Scarlet Witch, who owes Magneto her life. Quicksilver is the most interesting character in this comic right now because he has actual dimensions--he hates humans, he hates the X-Men, he hates Magneto... he hates everyone but his sister, and feels like he doesn't belong anywhere. Magneto, right now, is the best of a bad situation.

Magneto is abusive and threatening to the Evil Mutants, especially the craven, simpering Toad, who is so devoted to his master that when he's captured by the X-Men and separated from Magneto for too long, he becomes catatonic. He needs to return to his master's presence so badly that he ends up taking the X-Men right to Asteroid M, where the Evil Mutants are holding the Angel hostage and trying to get the location of Professor X out of him.

The resulting fight is pretty savage, and this is another way that I find Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch interesting: they're pledged to Magneto, but they clearly don't want to kill anybody. At one point, Scarlet Witch hexes Magneto's control panel so that he can't flush the X-Men out of an airlock and into space. It almost seems like Magneto's going to kill her, too, simply for impeding him. He also more or less uses Scarlet Witch as a human shield and orders her to hex Cyclops even though Quicksilver's in the way.

As Asteroid M begins to break up in orbit, Magneto at least gets to throw Cyclops out of the airlock before retreating with his Evil Mutants. Iceman and Angel demonstrate some impressive ability to use their powers--and even speak--in the vacuum of space, but they rescue Cyclops, the X-Men make it back to Earth, and then Professor X reclaims the title of Biggest Dick in the X-Verse from Magneto by revealing that he never actually lost his powers at all, but merely pretended to in order to see how the X-Men would do without him. This was their final exam, you see, and now they've graduated. Surprise!

Professor X is such a dick. I really don't like this guy. This won't be the last time he pulls some kind of nonsense like this.

Stray observations:

:: There's a lot of time spent early in this issue with the X-Men trying to figure out what they're going to do without Professor X to guide them, which is interrupted by various business such as a surprise visit by Jean's parents and Scott accidentally getting trapped in the Danger Room. Scott in particular is pretty wangsty over the whole thing in a way that reminds me why so many people don't like Scott Summers.

I come from a different era, the "All-New, All-Different X-Men" era of the late seventies and early eighties. When I first started reading Marvel's non-Star Wars comics, I was really into the reprints of these issues in Classic X-Men, and that was my favorite comic for a long time. I really sort of understood Scott and felt close to him, and I missed a lot of the years when he became the character everyone hated, so I never quite get it. But when I read stories like this where he's humorless, driven and, well, kinda whiny, I understand.

:: If the X-Men thought Professor X was powerless, why would they risk bringing another mutant back to the school? I think it's noble that they'd want to continue the Professor's work and help other mutants, but didn't they just learn the danger of doing that from the Blob? The impression I got in that issue was that if a mutant refused the offer to join the X-Men, Professor X would use his powers to erase the mutant's memories of the mansion's location.

:: In the previous issue, I thought Mastermind's power of illusion seemed a little lame, but there's a moment in this issue when he turns the Beast's legs to dough. Of course, it's just an illusion--he's tricked Beast's mind into thinking that's reality when it isn't. The Beast even says so--he understands rationally that it's not real, but he still reacts as though it is. It's interesting to think how Mastermind's powers work on a primal/emotional level.

:: So, according to Professor X, the X-Men have graduated. Stan & Jack have given up on the whole school angle, which could've really been something interesting but, well, has failed to be.

:: This issue introduces the letters page, "Let's Talk About the X-Men."

Right now, X-Men is only fitfully interesting, and the most dynamic characters aren't even any of the main ones, but rather recurring villains. At least there are two more appearances of these characters coming up in the next two issues. And hey. the next one features the Sub-Mariner, so let's see what happens there.

But next Marvels: another classic Spidey villain enters the stage.

Xmas: Haddon Sundblom

Longtime readers know I love Haddon Sundblom, particularly his Coca-Cola Santas. Those are some of my favorite things ever. This year is, I believe, the first year ever in which I didn't use a Haddon Sundblom illustration for my Christmas site banner. So I thought I'd still get some Sundblom in and share these ads that I came across. I'd never seen any of these before, but I love this kind of Americana. I know it's just an image and not a reality, but I love the art.

Also, that last one isn't specifically Christmas-themed, but it seemed to fit in with the others.

For some more great Christmas art, here's an older post on Animation Resources of Christmas cards from the Walt Disney Studios from the 30s, 40s and 50s.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Muppet Monday

Here's a little trifle from Sam and Friends that has the added benefit of being an entire, complete episode of the show. The show was only five minutes long, but it ran live every weekday from May 1955 to December 1961, which was pretty exhausting.

In the main sketch, Moldy Hay lipsynchs to the Stan Freberg version of "C'est Si Bon" while Hank and Frank miss their cues in the background. No one's sure of the year this came from, but I think the Freberg single is from 1960.

The real highlight, though, is the last minute and a half, which are a commercial for sponsor Esskay Meats. It features the earliest version of Jim Henson's character Limbo.

Xmas: Calvin and Hobbes, 1987

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Song of the Week: "Father Christmas"

SamuraiFrog's Essential Christmas Songs #26. The Kinks' 1977 class-conscious punk Christmas single. I recognize this kind of anger from when I was really embarrassed to have such a financially meager Christmas. Now it's just become routine.

Sunday Hottie 515

ALYSSA SUTHERLAND

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Happy Birthday, Beautiful

Taylor Swift's music and some of the things she's said have really helped me get through a tough year, and it's been a hell of a couple of months for this fan.

Xmas: Tumblr Finds III