Friday, October 31, 2014

On the Way to Work This Morning 10/31/14

Halloween 2014

From my (haunted) house to yours, have a happy and safe Halloween!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

On the Way to Work This Morning 10/29/14

Monsters Make the Scene

In my neighborhood, if you wanted to do any serious shopping, you had to head about one mile east down Chicago Avenue to the business district one side or the other of Ashland Avenue.

There, you could find just about anything. Needed groceries? You went to the National at Superior and Ashland. Wanted the latest Led Zeppelin album or a TV stand? Goldblatt’s had you covered. Out of sewing thread or shoe laces? Woolworth’s could help you. A nice shirt for Dad or a nightgown for Mom? Meyer Bros. was the place to go.

And if you were a kid and desired a new model kit to build? You went to The Stork Shop. Or was it called Stork’s? Depended on which kid you asked. Some just called it “The Hobby Shop.” No matter what it was called, you the kid in question was headed to the small storefront with the green awning on Chicago just east of Ashland with his allowance in hand, looking for just the right kit.

And God knows you could find something there, no matter what you liked to build. The shelves of The Stork Shop were stacked floor to ceiling with kits of all kinds. Classic cars. Fighter jets. Life-sized human skulls. Aircraft carriers. Dinosaurs.

And monsters. Lots and lots of monsters.

I never had much interest in cars, planes or ships—never had much skill at building them, either—but I always loved the monster kits, especially the ones made by Aurora Plastics Corp. They had always made the best figure kits, but starting in 1961 with the Frankenstein Monster, they cornered the market on scary things. Dracula, Wolf Man, Mummy, Creature from the Black Lagoon, even King Kong and Godzilla—all prowled the shelves of The Stork Shop.

All were waiting for one of us—one of the little boys who spent his spare moments combing the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland for tidbits about his favorite horror films, who spent his Saturday nights in front of the family Zenith alternately transfixed and freaked out by that week’s serving of fear-filled flicks on Creature Features or Svengoolie--to pony up the two or three dollars and take one of the monsters home.

It was at The Stork Shop, on one of its many, heavily packed shelves that I first encountered Aurora’s Monster Scenes model kits.

If you don’t remember Monster Scenes, that’s OK. Hardly anyone does. The series wasn’t around for very long—launched early in 1971, cancelled before the year was out, with the kits supposedly recalled, though I’m not convinced that part ever really happened. (I saw Monster Scenes kits on local shelves for some time after, and a 1977 issue of Famous Monsters still advertised a couple of the kits for sale.)

From the beginning, Monster Scenes was something of a hodgepodge of classic horror clich├ęs. The first wave of the series consisted of eight kits—four figure kits and four set kits for building dioramas in varied combinations. The idea was to allow kids to customize the kits with multiple sets of arms and legs and set pieces (laboratory equipment, tables, etc.) that could be placed wherever a kid wanted them to be. The four figure kits could also serve as a compromise between action figures and model kits—all four had poseable arms and one had a poseable head.

This was good thinking on Aurora’s part. When they had started to produce monster models a decade earlier, the action figure market didn’t really exist. In 1971, though, kids could play with G.I. Joe, Captain Action (and the various different character outfits you could dress him in) and, newly introduced that same year, superhero figures from Mego. Monster action figures hadn’t really been created yet, and kids wanted them. (I certainly did—I frequently broke my Aurora monster models off of their stands and had them fight one another, only to have to later glue them back on those stands.)

Also? The Monster Scenes kits could easily be snapped together--no more messing with smelly glue and waiting for parts to dry before attempting further assembly.
The first kit, Doctor Deadly, was the mad scientist of the bunch, though with his hunched back, stocky build and apron, he looked more like a mad butcher. (He also looked more than a bit like character actor Ed Asner, who was then a regular on The Mary Tyler Moore Show as the titular star’s gruff boss, Lou Grant.)
The second kit was the most readily recognizable: The Frankenstein Monster (credited as just “Frankenstein” on the box and enclosed instructions). Though he was a movie monster (and a direct callback to Aurora’s first monster model kit), he was a monster made in a laboratory by a mad scientist (though it’s not clear how he wound up with Doctor Deadly). He was also the only kit in the series made of glow-in-the-dark plastic, so the builder could decide either to paint the figure or slap him together and call him good.
The third figure kit was Vampirella, a then-new character in her own black-and-white magazine for Warren (publishers of horror anthologies like Creepy and Eerie--and, of course, Famous Monsters of Filmland), best known for being a tragic hero (fighting monsters while also fighting her bloodlust) and for wearing very little clothing. This made her an odd choice for Aurora, especially since they cast her in the role of assisting Doctor Deadly in his dastardly deeds while also covering up some (but not all) of her exposed flesh. Most likely, Vampi was included because she provided excellent cross-promotion possibilities with Warren and Captain Company, Warren’s in-house merchandise division.
Speaking of “exposed flesh,” the final figure of the first wave was also a woman showing a fair amount of skin—a young lady in a halter top and jean shorts with abundant cleavage and an appropriately horrified expression on her face. The problem with her, really, was the name Aurora gave her: The Victim.

The four remaining kits provided the sets on which the figure kits would stand. Two of the set kits—The Pain Parlor and Gruesome Goodies—comprise the laboratory, with tables, machinery, test tubes, an operating table and a skeleton (also, like the Monster, made in glow-in-the-dark plastic). Nobody really complained about these. It was the other two set kits—The Pendulum and the Hanging Cage—that made the parents’ groups howl.

It also really didn’t help that there was all sorts of misinformation flying about—for example, claims that the Vampirella kit came with a vial of blood (she didn’t) and that she was naked and had to have her clothing painted on (she was molded in a flesh-colored plastic, but had clothing molded on her body)—and that each box carried a huge burst that proclaimed that the kits had been “Rated X…for Excitement!”

Aurora had unintentionally struck a nerve. The combination of violence--specifically torture--and sex struck the same nerve that led to protests of (and eventually outright censorship of) the horror and crime comics of the 1950s.

Monsters didn’t seem to bother the parents' groups much, but the sex appeal of Vampi and Victim was deemed inappropriate for the age group Monster Scenes was aimed at, and the Victim’s name certainly offended in the age of women’s liberation. But the Pendulum? The Hanging Cage, with steel spikes at the bottom of the cage and hot coals and torture implements nearby? For the protesting parents, these didn't just cross the line--they blew past the line like it wasn't even there.

(Aurora had not learned its lesson from a few years earlier, when they had produced a functioning guillotine model; parents’ groups objected loudly, and the kit was quickly withdrawn from shelves.)

The uproar meant that the second wave of Monster Scenes kits—the far-less-objectionable Dracula, Giant insect and Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde—were produced and distributed in only Canada. (I didn’t even know they existed until I read about them in Bob Bruegmann’s Aurora History and Price Guide 20 years later.)

Said uproar also came at the worst time possible: Nabisco had just bought Aurora and certainly didn’t want all that adverse publicity. They ultimately ordered Aurora to pull the plug on Monster Scenes, ensuring that there would be no third wave of kits (which may have included a male Victim/Hero, an Executioner, DC Comics characters like Man-Bat and Lois Lane and even a huge, poseable King Kong).

It even meant that the last two kits in the second wave—the Animal Pit (which would have featured a long stone staircase for Dracula to descend) and a Dungeon set kit—would never see the light of day. Nor would the other Monster Scenes kits, since their molds had been destroyed by Monogram Models, which bought Aurora’s molds when they went out of business in 1977.

Or...would they?

Over the years, Monster Scenes attained cult status among modelers and monster fans—yours truly among them.

About 10 years ago, I picked up the four figure kits from the first wave—all of them partially built and/or painted--for about $100. I was thrilled to finally have them all, but instead of building and displaying them, I stuck them in storage. And there they stayed…until my recent stretch of unemployment when, having found them while cleaning house (yes, I do that once in a while…shut up), I went to work building and painting them. (The photos above are those same kits after I’d done my best…or worst…with them.)

I was additionally inspired to work on these kits after all these years by the publication of Aurora Monster Scenes: The Most Controversial Toys of a Generation, an amazingly comprehensive book on the model series and attending controversy, written by Dennis Prince (the current rights holder of Monster Scenes) and Andy Yanchus, the guy who came up with the Monster Scenes concept in the first place.

In a twist worthy of a typical story in Warren’s horror magazines, the Monster Scenes model, crawled out of their collective grave. Prince got together with Moebius Models and, after new molds were tooled, all of the kits from the first wave (and the Giant Insect from the second) have been reissued.

And that’s not all. Remember the Animal Pit and the Dungeon? The two kits that were almost ready to go into production when Nabisco ordered the end of Monster Scenes? According to Prince and Yanchus, the molds for these two kits actually survived Monogram’s purge and, after some additional fine tuning on the long-dormant molds, will finally go into production sometime soon.

Over the years, so many monsters have seemed definitely, irrevocably dead, only to prove that even the deepest and darkest of graves could not hold them down.

And so it has proven to be with Monster Scenes—bless 'em.

Shocktober 10/29/14

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Friday, October 24, 2014

Thursday, October 23, 2014

This Week's Travel Reading (Shocktober Edition)

It may seem odd for an adult to read a children's book on the train, but few books can get me in the mood for Halloween like Scary Godmother, a series of stories (both book-length and short) written and illustrated by Chicago's own Jill Thompson.

The first book, originally published in 1997, is the story of Hannah Marie, a little girl who's excited that she gets to dress up as a princess and head out for her first-ever night of trick-or-treating with the big kids. Less excited is her cousin, Jimmy, who'd much rather ditch Hannah and grab as much candy as his greedy little hands can hold.

Jimmy comes up with a nasty plan: Scare Hannah Marie so bad she'll run home early, leaving Jimmy and his friends plenty of time to hit every house in town. He takes her into an abandoned house and convinces the poor little girl that not only were the previous residents of the old house eaten by a monster in the basement, but that she will be as well unless she gives the monster candy.

Luckily for Hannah Marie, Scary Godmother and her friends--including a ghost cat, a skeleton, a very toothy, multi-eyed monster and several chatty bats--show the little girl that she has nothing to fear from Halloween. And Jimmy and his buddies? They don't fare as well: Not only do Scary Godmother and her friends deliver a solid fright to the naughty lads, but they wind up handing over just about all their candy to Hannah Marie!

Sure, these stories are fast reads, but it's a pleasure to go back and examine each illustration, just to catch all the funny, creepy details Thompson lovingly packs into each and every page of each and every story. Thompson clearly loves the holiday as much as I do--maybe more--and shares that love through her sweet, fun-loving witchy doppelganger.

Shocktober 10/23/14

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Friday, October 17, 2014

On the Way to Work This Morning 10/17/14

On the Way Home Last Night 10/16/14

I found this mask lying amongst the damp, colorful leaves of Richmond Street. It looks like a school project to color in a Dia de los Muertos skull; there's a girl's name scribbled on the back. If that's the case...nice job, Briana.

Shocktober 10/17/14

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

This Week's Travel Reading (Shoctober Edition)

It wouldn't be a bad idea to read a novel from the Dresden Files series at any time, much less in Shocktober, since Harry Dresden, Chicago's resident wizard/private eye (think a cross between Harry Potter and Jim Rockford) is usually fighting monsters of one type or another. But since Cold Days mostly takes place on Halloween--which also happens Harry's birthday--it's especially appropriate.

Every Picture Tells a Story 10/14/14

Shocktober 10/14/14

While I was unemployer, I took up model building again. This was the first one I finished--Gorgo!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Friday, October 10, 2014

Thursday, October 9, 2014