2015 was our boy’s fifth year of existence, and one in which his pop culture palate continued to broaden in directions both expected and not. Here are a few of the bits of art and other ephemera that caught his eye over the past year.
My Neighbor Totoro
My Neighbor Totoro
Conventional wisdom would suggest that kids raised on the hyperkinetic action of modern American cartoons would be bored stiff by the comparatively gentle, introspective work of filmmaker Hayo Miyazaki. The boy, though, adores the work of Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli, and a good number of his friends and classmates seem to agree. My Neighbor Totoro is his resounding favorite, so much so that we dressed as a family of Totoros for Halloween and got a Totoro cake for his birthday party. My wife and I couldn’t be happier that he loves this melancholy story of mysterious forest spirits helping two young girls cope with personal trauma in post-war Japan, as it’s quite simply one of the finest works of art of the 20th century.
(Hipster bonus: The boy considered it a positive when we explained that a lot of people might not know what his costume was but those who did would probably like it a lot.)
Batman: The Brave and The Bold
We watched a lot of superhero shows this year. A lot. And honestly, I enjoyed just about every minute of it. Before 2015 my knowledge of the DC Animated Universe began and ended with my much-loved Batman: The Animated Series. Now I’ve seen the justifiably venerated Justice League and its slightly inferior successor Justice League Unlimited, the curiously underrated Superman and the criminally overlooked Green Lantern: The Animated Series. And some Marvel stuff too.
Green Lantern might be my favorite of the bunch, but the boy was most taken with Batman: The Brave and The Bold. That makes sense, as the show specifically aims to recapture the fun and nonsense of old school comic books, before “dark and gritty” became the default setting. Each episode finds Batman teaming up with one or more classic superheroes, ranging from big names like Aquaman and Green Arrow to relative obscurities like the Metal Men and B’wana Beast. It’s good-natured, goofy Silver Age entertainment that takes itself just seriously enough maintain a genuine sense of adventure.
Art Baltazar and Franco
I’m a little bit torn about the state of kids’ superhero comics. On the one hand, I recognize that the abundance of material specifically aimed at younger readers is part of a massive marketing maneuver aimed at hooking kids early and establishing them as customers for life as the characters “grow” along with them. On the other hand, there are a lot of really good kids’ comics out there right now. Having grown up in the era when comic companies were determined to rebrand as “not just for kids” by making all of their comics very much inappropriate for kids, I’ll take this trade-off.
Art Baltazar and Franco are arguably the most prolific team working in all ages' comics today, and for good reason. These guys know how to make comics for young readers, whether they’re reimagining the DC Universe as a bunch of Little Archie-esque ragamuffins in Tiny Titans, creating a new but familiar universe of superheroic funny animals in Aw Yeah Comics, scaling the sprawling expanse of the Green Lantern universe down to a child-friendly scope, or any of the other dozen or so comic projects they’ve cranked out over the past few years. The boy generally prefers finding new material to revisiting old favorites, but these are stories he’ll gladly read over and over.
“Punk” and “Rock”
The boy has gone through a number of favorite songs over the course of the year, the earliest being The Ramones’ “Rock 'n' Roll High School.” Our discussion of that song led to an explanation of punk rock in general, which led to the boy declaring any song he liked to be “a good punk song,” provided it was loud enough and reasonably fast-paced. That included actual punk acts like Rancid and MU330 as well as broader-reaching stuff like Bob Dylan and Doomtree. As the year wore on he shifted to “Rock” as his default terminology, which made more sense when he started digging on Queen and T. Rex but still didn’t quite cover his fondness for club bangers.
Reading just clicked for the boy toward the end of last year, and his skills progressed at an alarming rate from then on. He’s currently immensely proud of himself for being able to read chapter books unassisted, as well he should be - he recently brought home Flat Stanley from school and read it to us in one sitting just to prove he could. He's read a few more Stanley adventures since then, along with things like Roald Dahl, the Super Pets series and the Harry Potter knock-off Secrets of Droon books. Still, we try to keep him mindful that things won’t always come quite so easily to him, and that no good will come of getting cocky about his skills. I well remember breezing along through elementary school and then running smack into the brick wall of multiplication tables. That hurt on several levels
Despite his much-vaunted fondness for longer tomes, the boy still loves a good picture book as much as the next kid. His tastes range from the thoughtful, elegantly illustrated work of author-illustrators like Graeme Base and John J. Muth to the wackier antics of folks like Chris Monroe, Michael Ian Black and Mac Barnett. Melanie Watt stands out as his favorite by virtue of two wonderful series: the fussy, elaborately detailed misadventures of Scaredy Squirrel, and the treacherous meta-text of Chester the mutinous cat. All of the above get my hearty endorsement.
Monsters Ate My Birthday Cake
I see video games as the biggest pop cultural chasm between the boy’s generation and mine. I grew up in the early days of NES, when gaming systems were still something of a luxury item. Nowadays they’re as much a fact of childhood as TV cartoons, if not more so. While we do have a semi-functional GameCube and PS2 in the basement, the boy’s gaming is mainly tablet- and PC-based. He gravitates toward problem-solving games that lean heavily on logic and pattern recognition. Needless to say, that means Mommy is his usual gaming buddy.
They’ve defeated a good number of opponents this year in titles ranging from the delightfully low-key Draw a Stickman to the endlessly obnoxious Plants vs. Zombies. I think the biggest hit was Monsters Ate My Birthday Cake, a cool bit of problem-solving from Cartoon Network. As a guy who’s not so hot with cause-and-effect, the logical intricacies of this one sometimes makes my head hurt, but it’s probably a good sign that the boy gets a blast out of rational thinking.
We made a lot of family visits to Oz this year via all kinds of media. We’ve listened to L. Frank Baum’s original novel on Audible, read almost all of the fantastic Marvel Comics adaptations, read a few of Baum’s sequels, and attended Children’s Theater Company’s extravagant stage interpretation of the MGM movie. We haven’t, however, engaged with Oz’s most famous incarnation, the movie itself. Despite thoroughly enjoying the multitude of horrors served up by Baum (not to mention potential trauma-fonts like the Justice League facing down the dread Cthulu in an effort to save the soul of a rampaging zombie), the boy is convinced Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West will be too scary for him to deal with. Much as I dig the technicolor Oz, I’m perfectly happy to stick to the Baumverse for the time being.
I’ll admit it made me rather proud that my five-year-old had a favorite local graffiti artist. I suppose Boxy Mouse isn’t technically graffiti, but the curiously cubic rodent’s visage decorates more than enough Twin Cities light posts and news boxes to qualify as a street art icon. The boy has loved going Boxy-spotting for years and has amassed a sizable collection of his buttons. His mom picked him up a framed Boxy Mouse portrait for his birthday, which now decorates his bedroom wall.
We Bare Bears
I’m a firm believer that children’s television is the strongest it’s ever been. I’ve seen a lot of top-notch shows over the past six years, and this new Cartoon Network offering is one of the best. It’s a simple story of three idiosyncratic bears living in a cave outside of San Francisco and doing their best to cope with this modern world. It’s a rare combination of hip, heartfelt and hilarious that qualifies as appointment TV for every member of our family. Ice Bear is among the five best characters on television right now.
Would that my artistic career ever produce anything one-tenth as timeless as Looney Tunes. By this point my generation has seen all of these 60-plus-year-old shorts so many times that it’s easy to forget their raw power. Spend a few minutes on a couch next to a five-year-old straight-up howling with laughter at Roadrunner and Coyote and it’ll all come rushing back.
Loving things that you later realize are terrible is an important rite of childhood passage. I’m happy that the boy has found one of those in this profoundly lazy Adam Sandler/Chris Columbus collaboration. A movie about a team of losers battling giant retro video game characters from outer space actually had potential to be a decent bit of dumb fun, but it’s evident that nobody here (except maybe the graphics department) cared enough to put in the effort to do anything more than was necessary to make a profit on the rental market. It’s a sloppy, unfunny and weirdly misogynistic movie, but it does have some pretty cool video game battle sequences, and that’s all that matters to the boy. Much as I don’t like exposing him to the concept of a world where Kevin James could become President, he’s fascinated by old-school video games (he adores the Pixels version of Q-Bert) and his taste in things is generally good enough that I’m not too concerned. Plus Pixels’ utterly predictable use of “We Will Rock You” got him interested in Queen. That’s a pretty solid byproduct.
The Back to the Future Trilogy
Neither my wife nor I were exactly diehard Back to the Future fans, but we were both pre-pubescents in the mid-1980s, which means the Marty McFly saga was more or less hardwired into our consciousnesses. Through a stroke of fortuitous timing, the boy happened to be home sick on the much-ballyhooed “Back to the Future Day” - the day in 2015 to which Marty travels in Back to the Future Part II - which led to my wife queuing it up on Amazon, which led to him watching the entire trilogy over two days and devouring every pseudo-scientific scrap of it. I’m pretty certain he has a better grasp on the capabilities and limitations of the time-traveling Delorean than do I, and he even pointed out a couple of plot holes that never occurred to me.
The Snow Queen
I’ve somehow become a gainfully employed theater critic in the past few years, which means the boy sees far more live theater than I could have conceived of at his age. We had a good year of theatergoing, taking in everything from everything from big-budget stage productions to traveling puppet shows to a bunch of genial millennials frolicking around with a parachute. The one he talked about the most was an adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen that he saw at Saint Paul’s Park Square Theater on a Sunday date with mommy. I’m a little envious that I missed such a memorable show, but I’ve heard enough about the mysterious queen, the singing peasants and the hilarious reindeer that I almost feel like I was there.
The Creeping TerrorThe boy has never seen Vic Savage’s bottom-of-the-barrel 1964 sci-fi flick, but he does love to hear me describe the trash films on which I squander so many of my precious hours. “This is like The Creeping Terror” has become his shorthand for anything slow-moving or tedious. It’s probably my favorite of his many antiquated pop culture euphemisms, narrowly edging out “This makes no sense, like T. Rex words.”