Friday, June 30, 2017

The Secret Origins of Jonny Quest

by G. Jack Urso

First Rick Brant adventure
Author's collection.
Jonny Quest, the classic Hanna-Barbara cartoon that ran from 1964-1965, detailed the adventures of a young boy, his famous scientist father Dr. Benton Quest, their dog Bandit, Jonny’s Indian friend Hadji, and their bodyguard, secret agent Race Bannon. Together, they operated from Palm Key, a secret island base off the East Coast of America. The show’s main influence is generally well-known to have been Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy. Jack Armstrong was a popular long-running radio show from 1933 to 1951. Jack traveled the world having adventures with his best friend Billy, Billy’s sister Betty, and their Uncle Jim, an industrialist. Jonny Quest was in fact intended to be a Jack Armstrong cartoon, as evident in the test footage used in the show's closing credits. The concept was later scrapped, presumably due to the complications and cost in obtaining the needed copyrights, and Jonny Quest was born. The connection to Jack Armstrong, however, was obvious from the start. I can remember my father making the observation while watching the show together in the late 1960s. 
Nevertheless, there is another, more direct, influence on Jonny Quest that has received less attention. From 1947 to 1968, Grosset & Dunlap published Rick Brant's Electronic Adventures, a series about a young boy, Rick Brant, who used science and technology to battle his antagonists (a single limited edition volume was also published in 1990). Joining Rick was his father, famous scientist Dr. Hartson Brant; Dismal (or "Diz"), their dog; Rick’s Hindu friend from India, Chahda; and his ex-marine pal, and sometimes bodyguard, Scotty. Together, along with Rick's sister Barby and her best friend Jan, secret agent Steve Ames, and a supporting cast of scientific specialists, they operated from Spindrift Island, their secret base off the East Coast of America.

Is this beginning to sound familiar?

Even more than with Jack Armstrong, here we see all the essential elements of Jonny Quest: an adventurous boy, his scientist father, their dog, his best friend from India, his bodyguard, and an island base. While one could argue that all cartoons about the adventures of a globe-trotting boy will contain certain basic similarities, there are just too many here. If Hanna-Barbara abandoned the Jack Armstrong concept due to potential costly copyrights, why did they settle on an alternative with so many parallels? There is no report about Hanna-Barbara purchasing the rights, or settling with the publishers Grosset & Dunlap. One is left to wonder whether the matter was handled quietly or if Grosset & Dunlap just never pursued it.
The Quest Compound on Palm Key
The Brant Compound on Spindrift Island
Comparing images of the islands show some basic similarities with a runway and lab compound. The high-tech “Submobile” used in the first Rick Brant adventure, 100 Fathoms Under (1947), looks as though it directly influenced the Quest sea-floor crawler used in the 1965 episode "Pirates From Below." Steve Ames works for "JANIG," the Joint Army-Navy Intelligence Group, while Race Bannon works for "Intelligence One," a CIA-type organization. Other similarities can be found, and there are enough to suggest that at the very least there are some potential copyright violations by Hanna-Barbara that go beyond borrowing and adapting a concept.

The Rick Brant adventures were much like the Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew series in that the protagonists were young people, some kind of mystery drove the plot, and action and adventure ensued. Rick Brant author Harold L. Goodwin, with co-author Peter J. Harkins on the first three novels, created a compelling model that appealed to the post-war faith in science and technology. The Rick Brant adventures also included two teen girls as part of the regular supporting cast. This was unlike the original Jonny Quest series whose only female character was Jezebel Jade, a mercenary who helped the Quests in two original episodes, which gave little for young female fans to follow. Admittedly, however, both series had essentially male-centric formats.

The truth between the obvious influences of the Rick Brant adventures on Jonny Quest may never be known. Both properties though do provide us with a glimpse at the aspirations of the post-World War II generation. Despite the devastation and horror of the war, the belief in something better prevailed. Science and technology could be used in non-violent ways to advance knowledge, friendships could transcend religion, and even teenagers had something to contribute in making the world a safer place.

That’s still a pretty good idea.  

Related Content on Aeolus 13 Umbra

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Superman: The Fleischer/Famous Studios Cartoons (1941-1943)

by G. Jack Urso

The Fleischer Superman
In 1941, a scant three years after the introduction of Superman in 1938, animation producers Max and Dave Fleischer were approached by Paramount Studios to create a series of cartoons based on the new superhero. The results were breathtaking. Although the Fleischers were hesitant to take the project, they treated the topic seriously and used state-of-art techniques and technology to bring this quintessential American character to life. A total of 17 episodes were eventually produced.

One innovation the Fleischers introduced is Superman’s ability to fly. Prior to the cartoons, Superman traveled by leaping, as in “Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!” After initial animation tests, however, the scenes of Superman leaping lacked the fluid motion the Fleischers sought. More frankly, they thought it looked “silly.” After consultation with DC Comics, Superman began to fly both on the screen and in the comics.

Max Fleischer invented rotoscoping, the process in which animation is applied over live-action film footage to create more natural movement. For the Superman cartoons, the Fleischers employed this technique and over 600 artists and technical personnel to bring the comic book superhero to life. No attention to detail was spared. The black shield on Superman's chest draws the eye to the character.  Art Deco accents and the use of shadows to emulate film noir lighting give a cinematic feel to the shorts. Brilliant special effects create electricity, lightning, and fire to heighten the sense of danger. The overall production design influenced the look of the critically acclaimed 1990s Superman: The Animated Series.

Following the first nine shorts, a falling out between the brothers led to the creation of Famous Studios with many of the same animators. The Fleischer Studio shorts, completed by the end of 1941, had mad scientists, robots, dinosaurs, earthquakes, meteors, and volcanos – the stock and trade of the classic Man of Steel. Famous Studios, however, in the wake of Pearl Harbor and the U.S. involvement in World War II, introduced plots with Japanese saboteurs and Nazi spies. Here we begin to see the shift of Superman from a brightly costumed super-powered pulp hero to an All-American icon. Nevertheless, one cannot mistake a hint of racism in the title of the episode “Japoteurs.” On many levels, these animated shorts typify the era.   

What I love about these cartoons is not just the animation, which retains its beauty nearly eight decades later, but also how they show America in the twilight of the Machine Age, that period of time between the 1880s and 1945. We built big, from the Empire State Building to the Hoover Dam, and had cautionary tragedies from the Titanic to the Hindenburg that tested our moral and technological limits. In many respects, these cartoons embody the zeitgeist of the times and give us a unique look at America at a critical time in our history.  Click on the links below to see all 17 episodes on the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel!

From the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube Channel


Sunday, April 30, 2017

Lord of the Flies (1963)

by G. Jack Urso

Lord of the Flies is a 1963 film based on the 1954 novel of the same name by William Golding about a group of English school boys who are stranded on a desert island after a nuclear war breaks out. The film, directed by Peter Brook, was seen by millions of Baby Boomers in high school English classes who would then practice “duck and cover” drills in case of a very real nuclear war –  ritualistically rehearsing their own impending deaths.

The plot for Lord of the Flies is widely published, but, in brief, the boys find themselves on the island after their plane crashes. No adults survive and the boys quickly divide into two groups: one led by Ralph, a believer in democracy, and the other by Jack, the anarchic leader of the school’s choir. Ralph wants to return to civilization while Jack and his followers quickly descend into violent, uncivilized behavior. The resulting clash becomes an allegory for the Cold War world of the 1950s and 1960s. Standing on the brink of nuclear war, we vacillated between giving into our baser instincts and descending into violent conflicts or listening to the better angels of our nature and working together for the common good. This conflict created a social mass psychosis and we personified our fears until they commanded us like the proverbial Lord of the Flies – the shadow of which still haunts us.

One important image in the film is the bonfire; it represents the boys' desire to return to civilization. As events unfold, and the boys descend into anarchy, the fire becomes unattended and goes out and the chance for rescue by a passing ship is missed. The lesson is clear, as we give into our baser instincts, civilization slips further and further away.

The lessons from the novel and the excellent film are as relevant today as they were in 1954 or 1963 – if not even more so. America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia are all in throes of violently bitter partisan politics. Many nations are seeing nationalist political movements rising up that threaten the advancement of civilization, and limit or turn back progress on societal and scientific development. The fire of civilization is going out all over the world, and fewer and fewer people think it is worth keeping lit. 

From the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube Channel


Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Battle of the Little Bighorn Video Library

by G. Jack Urso

Long load time due to multiple video previews.

Since childhood, the Battle of the Little Bighorn has fascinated me. Few incidents so capture the character and turbulent history of late 19th Century America as this singular event.  George Armstrong Custer was a more complicated figure than the two-dimensional hero or villain he has been made out to be. Before West Point, he taught elementary school. Once securing his appointment to the vaunted military academy, Custer did just about everything he could do to land at the bottom of his class. Despite graduating a year early because of the war, Custer nearly missed the First Battle of Bull Run after being court martialed for allowing a fight between cadets to take place on his watch as Officer of the Guard. When offered the choice between the safer route of training soldiers or the more dangerous one of fighting, Custer opted to fight.

While Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and his Maine regiment get most of the glory for saving the Union at the Battle of Gettysburg, Custer arguably deserves a very large portion of the credit. Leading his Michigan regiments against J.E.B. Stuart’s Confederate cavalry, Custer stopped the column before an attack on the Union’s rear lines which would have collapsed the Union army had it succeeded – and despite Chamberlain’s success on Little Round Top. Had the Union Army been routed that day the war would have certainly been lost. Few in our nation's history can be said to have very literally saved it, and Custer is one of those few.

Although he was wounded in the foot at the Battle of Culpeper Court House, Custer generally avoided serious injury during the Civil War – "Custer's Luck," as it was called. Nevertheless, he did not walk away from the conflict entirely unscathed. Custer developed a stammer and a compulsive hand-washing habit – perhaps symptomatic of post-traumatic stress having fought for four years and having been burdened with so much responsibility at so young an age as 23.

Custer was a mass of contradictions regarding race. Though against the institution of slavery, and reportedly having had sexual relations with his female black cook, he wrote in October 1865 that, regarding giving the African-American the right to vote, “I would as soon think of elevating an Indian chief to the popedom of Rome.”

While promoted to major general of volunteers during the Civil War, by the end of the conflict Custer was still just a captain in the regular army. He turned down a promotion to colonel of the African-American 10th Cavalry regiment in favor of being the lieutenant colonel of the all-white 7th Cavalry. Custer’s desire was for battle, and he was convinced African-American regiments would not be on the front-lines and therefore his long-term chances for promotion diminished. That being said, other white officers openly embraced the opportunity to serve with and lead the 10th, including First Lieutenant, later General, John J. Pershing, from 1895 – 1897, so one cannot entirely dismiss the charge of racism from Custer's response.

Custer acknowledged a sympathy towards the plight of the Native American, and, indeed, stated that if he were an Indian he would be out living free on the plains rather than on a reservation. Additionally, he had a Cheyanne mistress, Me-o-tzi, and also protested the Indian Agents’ treatment of the natives under their charge; nevertheless, when the opportunity came to advance his career by attacking settlements full of women, children, and the elderly (as at Washita and the Little Bighorn), Custer did not hesitate.

Having visited the Little Bighorn Battlefield myself, I was struck by how remote it is – nearly as much it was in 1876. It was a long way to go to be brutally cut down by people justifiably defending their families and way of life. What Custer realized about the truth of his life in those final moments will never be revealed, but he faced his karma and met it head on. Still, as Sitting Bull commented, “Custer was a fool and rode to his death.” Between those two extremes we find the character of the man, and the nation. May our country live long enough to avoid both fates.

The videos below from my personal archives provide a broad review of various aspects of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Tracking down these films required no small amount of time, effort, and money. Some of these films had never before been made publically available before being posted to the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel. In my research on the battle I looked at a lot of videos and these are among the most compelling. For more related content on Aeolus 13 Umbra, please visit my historical essay, The Mystery of the Little Bighorn Battlefield (with original battlefield photographs). 

From the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube Channel

Custer’s Last Fight (1912), New York Motion Picture Company. Silent Film, 43 minutes (VHS). Directed by Thomas Ince and starring Francis Ford, legendary director John Ford’s older brother, stars as George Armstrong Custer. The New York Motion Picture Company claimed Natives Americans who fought at the Little Bighorn appear in the film. The budget was US$30,000, approximately US$738,190 in 2017, which was the largest to have been spent on a movie at that time.

Red Sunday (1976), produced by the Montana and North Dakota historical societies' Bicentennial commissions. Documentary, 30 minutes (VHS): I viewed a lot of documentaries about the Battle of the Little Bighorn during my research, and this is among the best. The combination of the writing, editing, use of film, and John McIntyre's compelling narration combine for a dramatic and powerful effect in this production.

The Court Martial of George Armstrong Custer (1977), NBC. TV movie, 95 minutes (VHS): Starring Brian Keith, Ken Howard, Blythe Danner, James Olson, William Daniels, and Anthony Zerbe. What if Custer had lived? This question forms the basis of this compelling production. This is a particularly personal film for me as I recall watching it in 1977 as a 12-year old boy with my father who explained it to me as I watched – and launched a lifetime of interest in the battle. The video quality is not great, but the "what if" premise and a fantastic cast makes it worth a visit for those interested in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

History Recovered: The Custer Battlefield Archeological Survey of 1984 (1985), Webster Productions. Documentary, 58 minutes (VHS): Video companion to the book, Archeological Insights Into The Custer Battle: An Assessment of the 1984 Field Season (1987). Narrated by Dick Cavett. In 1983, a fire swept through the Little Bighorn Battlefield burning off a century of vegetation and offering an opportunity for the best look at artifacts up to that time.

Dreams Along the Little Bighorn (1987), KUED Salt Lake City. Documentary, 58 minutes (VHS): This PBS film profiles lesser known participants in the battle, such as reporter Mark Kellogg, and interviews with descendants of Native participants in the battle, including Joe Medicine Crow, grandson of White-Man-Runs-Him, a Crow scout present at the battle with the 7th Calvary.  This documentary provides more intimate details of the participants.

A Good Day to Die (1988), John S. Gray with Robert Utley. Old Army Press. Documentary, 57 minutes (VHS): This independent production provides cultural and social context to the battle. While providing an excellent graphical analysis of the battle itself, the film also hauntingly captures the mystery and tragedy of the event.

Songs of the Seventh Calvary (1989), released by The Bismarck Tribune for the benefit of the Fort Abraham Lincoln Foundation. Album, 34 minutes (CD). These classic 19th Century songs were sung by the Seventh Cavalry during the Custer era, including some, such as Little Footsteps, sung to Custer on the eve of the Little Bighorn battle. The complete playlist features When Johnny Comes Marching Home, The Girl I Left Behind, Shenandoah-Across the Wide Missouri, Soldier’s Joy, Good-bye at the Door, Arkansas Traveler, Gary Owen, The Dreary Black Hills, Civil War Medley, Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines, Little Footsteps, and Annie Laurie. Click on link above for full article. 

Custer’s Last Trooper (1990), Bill Armstrong Productions. Documentary, 48 Minutes (VHS). An archeological dig uncovers a 7th Cavalryman’s skull, and scientists, using modern forensic techniques, recreate his face. I caught this when it was first broadcast on the Arts & Entertainment Channel (A&E) in late January 1990. After high school, college, and striking out on my own, I had almost forgotten about my youthful interest in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, but within an hour it was rekindled with a passion. By May 1, I journeyed across America to the battlefield.  

Son of the Morning Star (1991), ABC. TV movie, 180 minutes (VHS). Based on Evan S. Connell’s 1984 book of the same name. Stars Gary Cole, Rosanna Arquette, Rodney A. Grant, David Strathairn, Dean Stockwell, and Buffy Sainte-Marie. Attention to detail and accuracy mark this production. Cole turns in a surprisingly good performance as Custer – capturing his ambition, intensity, and impetuosity, if not necessarily his charisma. Originally broadcast as a two-part miniseries, it is presented here as a single film.

Monday, February 6, 2017

William Burroughs: "Naked Lunch (Excerpt)”

From the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube Channel
William Burroughs: "Naked Lunch (Excerpt)” from the 1966 ESP Records LP Call Me Burroughs.

Audio by Burroughs Video by Urso


Sunday, February 5, 2017

1971 Radio Free Europe Public Service Announcement

From the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube Channel
This short PSA sparked my early interest in the suffering of the world around me. Radio Free Europe, using popular culture, brought the outside world behind the Iron Curtain. 


Friday, February 3, 2017

Ken Nordine: Reaching Into In

From the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube Channel
Ken Nordine: "Reaching Into In." 1960 Dot LP Word Jazz Vol. II.

Spoken Word by Nordine – Video by Urso

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Allen Ginsberg: America

From the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube Channel
Allen Ginsberg: "America." Recorded in 1959.

 Poem by Ginsberg Video by Urso


Sunday, January 8, 2017

A Mayan Plate in Father Crespi's Gold Collection

Guest author Kim Basco. Edited by G. Jack Urso. Presentation produced and narrated by G. Jack Urso.

Born in 1891 in Italy, Father Carlos Crespi Croci was a Salesian Monk that spent his career in Cuenca, Ecuador from 1923 to 1982. At the University of Milan, he studied anthropology before becoming a priest. His many talents included being an educator, anthropologist, botanist, artist, explorer, cinematographer, humanitarian, as well as a musician. The kindness and benevolence he taught his congregation was such that they rewarded him with a number of ancient artifacts.

It is estimated that throughout his lengthy career, Father Crespi was given and/or purchased over 50,000 ancient artifacts. The items in particular that captured the fascination of the world were a number of plates and objects forged from gold with mysterious symbols and hieroglyphs. The villagers told Father Crespi that many of the artifacts were found inside a cave known as the Tayos Cave.

In the early 1970s, Erich Von Daniken published The Gold of the Gods in which he highlighted many of Father Crespi’s artifacts. Von Daniken made the claim that the collection included metal books showing proof that a lost civilization existed in ancient times that extraterrestrials helped to form. Many people fed into the belief that these artifacts were either extraterrestrial or were “out of place” with bizarre unknown scripts similar to Babylonian or Sumerian writing.

With the Vatican’s permission, Father Crespi opened a museum at the Salesian School at Cuenca. In July 1962, a fire broke out and the museum was destroyed. Father Crespi was able to salvage as much as possible and stored them in two long, narrow rooms. Items from Father Crespi’s collection included tablets, plates, doors, decorations, statues, pottery, jewelry, ancient weapons and war adornments. There were even three gold sarcophagus-like coffins. The artifacts were made of stone, wood, ceramic and metal. The metals were pure gold, sheet-gold, pure silver, sheet-silver, bronze, brass, copper, zinc, tin and sheet metal.

When Father Crespi passed away in 1982 what happened next only added to the mystery. His collection was removed. Investigators later discovered that it was purchased by the Central Bank of Ecuador and is currently stored in their museum vaults; however, none of the golden plates were shown to investigators, so it assumed they are lost. Others believe that either the Vatican has them, the local Government, or another rumor is that they were melted down and used for military funds. All that remains is the photographic evidence. Some people believe that the collection either never existed or was a fake.

The truth is that there is a golden plate within Father Crespi’s collection that has been overlooked but is undeniable proof that the origins of the plate are absolutely regional. The plate was not created or influenced by extraterrestrials or other cultures outside of Mesoamerica. Finally, after all of this time a connection has been made between the Crespi Gold Collection and the Mayan hieroglyphs.

The Mayan Empire was located in what is now Guatemala. Its greatest influence was reached in the Sixth Century A.D. The Maya had advanced knowledge of architecture, agriculture, art, calendar-making, math, pottery, and hieroglyphic writing. For reasons not yet fully understood, most of the Maya deserted their cities by 900 A.D. To this day, historians argue over the reasons for the fall of the Mayan Empire.

Why has it taken so long for this one plate to be recognized for what it is? The main reason perhaps is because the plate is never shown to be in the proper position. In order to be connected back to its native language, the plate needs to be in the position as shown in these images. Also, when the Spanish conquered Mesoamerica one of the goals was to eliminate the history of the indigenous peoples. By taking away their historical identity the Spanish succeeded in convincing the world that the Mesoamerica had no education or cultural value before the Spaniard’s arrival.

In recent times however, archaeologists and anthropologists have gained a great understanding and respect for early Mesoamerican civilizations. We know today that many Mesoamerican cultures that existed in modern times were very advanced and modern researchers still struggle to decipher their architecture, artwork, and writing systems.
Fig. 1: Transcription of Mayan Symbols from the Father Crespi Gold Collection
Every glyph on this plate (see Fig. 1) can be found in the key provided by Bishop Landa who was a part of later Spanish rule in Mesoamerica. There are mild variants between a couple of the glyphs on the gold plate and Bishop Landa’s key; however, it is widely known that the Maya often used many designs and variations for the same syllable or word.

Is this to say that all of Father Crespi’s artifacts were Mayan in nature? That is doubtful. The plates appear to be a compilation of different scripts that more than likely existed throughout the region. Perhaps the Tayos Cave served as the ancient school for scribes as well as for the art of metallurgy.

It is possible that the Mesoamerica people hid these valuable historical artifacts so that the Spaniards would not be able to confiscate them. It is uncanny how much of Bishop’s Landa’s key appears on the gold plate itself. Perhaps, there were some Spaniards who hid some of the gold away either because they recognized the historical value of the plates, or for greed with the intent to recover them later but never did.

The last plausible explanation for such an accumulation of varied historical metal artifacts is that they were brought there by floodwaters. Central and South America are subject to monsoons so perhaps the caves are the lowest level point in the region in which floodwaters deposit various materials. Gold, being a heavy metal, will sink to the lowest level the first chance it gets. Copper and silver are also heavy metals. 

We will never know how they got there or where they went after Father Crespi passed away, but now, at least, there is a solid connection to the Mayan culture.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Great Comet Crash PBS Special (1994)

by G. Jack Urso

Live special from July 1994 featuring images captured by the Hubble Space Telescope as the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 collides with Jupiter. Also included is commentary about the event from scientists and artists. Hosted by Terry Gross, of the long-running Fresh Air on WHYY-FM (WHYY also produced the show). This program was broadcast live at the time of the reception of the first images of the impact of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 into Jupiter. The show also features an early appearance of Bill Nye the Science Guy. You have to be a real astronomy geek to appreciate this, but count me in right down to my Boy Scout astronomy merit badge from the summer of 1977 at Stratton Mountain Scout Reservation, Vt.

Originally recorded by myself on the evening of the broadcast and posted from my personal archives to the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel:

San Francisco Scene (The Beat Generation) - Jack Kerouac

by G. Jack Urso

In 1959, Jack Kerouac recorded a frantic prose sketch that was later included in his novel Desolation Angels, published in 1965. In a brilliant example of his stream-of-consciousness approach, Kerouac frenetically paints a portrait of a Jazz session then segues into a description of poet Herbert Huncke  whom Kerouac credited as introducing him to the phrase “I’m beat,” which somehow evoked the essence of the first major post-World War II countercultural movement. Kerouac ends his brief visit to the Beat scene with the odd juxtaposition of a 12 year old drummer in the adult underworld. He leaves us, here in 1959 as the Beat Movement nears its peak, with a question to his audience: "What will happen?" What indeed Mr. Kerouac. What indeed.

Available on Volume One of Rhino Record’s The Beat Generation (1992) and posted from my personal archives to the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel:

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