Happy Birthday, Rantcor Pit!

On October 18, 2013, The JediCole Universe published the first episode of a new incarnation of The Rantcor Pit.  

Jettisoning the "solo rant" format of the first two episodes earlier in the year, JediCole was joined by Eddie Medina to bring a more conversational tone to the show.  One year later the bi-weekly show on this network has spawned a bi-weekly live show at deepellumonair.com  on alternate Sundays.  

Thank you to everyone who has made our first year amazing and inspiring.  We look forward to bringing you more of our own unique look at Star Wars as film, saga, franchise, and cultural phenomenon in our second big year!

The JediCole Universe Live (All-Con 2014 Edition)

At long last it can be shared!  

The JediCole Universe Live has been a running talk show presentation at All-Con for several years now.  Again this year I was fortunate enough to have Eddie Medina (of The Rantcor Pit and Figments) record the proceedings for your enjoyment.  

While much of what transpires is visual in nature, for the most part the audio will convey the antics that make up this show each year, especially the new feature that retools a well-known movie trailer.

So if you missed the show back in March, here's your chance to discover just what went on at The JediCole Universe Live this year in all its ample glory.

Three Years Old Today!

Has it been three years?

Today, January 2, 2013, marks the third anniversary of The JediCole Universe!  On Sunday, January 2, 2011 I published the very first post to the site.  In the months and years since, through fits and starts, my little corner of the internet has grown beyond my expectations.  This year the site averaged 1,200 pageviews per month!  While that is not a massive number, considering that the site started out with less than 300 views a month.

Back then I promised five different features of which all but one have seen the light of day here, albeit with new names in some cases.  From an ambitious pursuit to the home of The JediCole Podcasting Network (and more) in so short a time is really quite remarkable to me.  Along the way I have had the help and support of some amazingly talented people, almost all of whom have contributed in some way to the various podcasts to be found here. 

It has been immensely satisfying to watch this site grow and to add to the ever-growing features.  In the last year alone Hey Kids, Comics! celebrated its first anniversary, You Are Here premiered as the flagship of JCU Sunday Funniesand The Rantcor Pit was reconfigured and relaunched.  A brand new movie review and recap show, Whadjathink?, also debuted in 2013.  The JediCole Universe has had a presence at a variety of conventions and successfully spun off Convention Awareness Project - Texas, your source for conventions in the Lone Star State.

In 2014 I plan to ramp up production on "lost" features like JediCole's Open Mic NightIt Came From the Dollar Store!, Who Do You Love?, and Odd eBay.  Andrew, Catherine, Bobby, Stu, Eddie, and I all have big plans for our respective shows in the new year as well.  Things are just going to get even more amazing here at the JCU and I can't thank you enough for making this possible!

                                                                    Cole "JediCole" Houston
                                                                    January 2, 2014

A Long Way to Go For a Joke: Behind the Scenes of "You Are Here"

Twenty-five weeks ago a one panel cartoon series premiered on this website under the banner of JCU Sunday Funnies.  The cartoon, You Are Here, was launched to make use of some concepts that were at least 20 years old along with a variety of new ones that have come up along the way.  But for the tireless efforts of Texas-based cartoonist Bobby Blakey, however, this series would never have gone further than my Ever-Ticking Brain.  Instead a cartoon idea sent to Bobby on a lark resulted not only in a means to bring some dusty ideas out of obscurity, but to inspire an ongoing series with more concepts in some stage of development than have been published to date.  In other words, you can look forward to more You Are Here comics for many more months to come.

As outlined in the first JCU Sunday Funnies post, this cartoon was initially conceived as a potential weekly strip for the Oak Cliff Tribune.  In the interest of having a “creative buffer”, the strip would not be proposed until at least three months worth of cartoons had been completed.  While I did manage to conjure up about 20 ideas in advance and even commit a few to paper, the project never gelled, largely due to not being particularly thrilled with my own art.  The original concept sketches and finished drawings were remanded to my “life’s papers” files but never forgotten.  So when the cartoon idea based on The Flintstones was so masterfully created by Bobby I decided to approach him about producing a series.  That this occurred has certainly been borne out over the last several months as week after week You Are Here remains a reliable feature of this website.  On the occasion of reaching 25 weeks of humor and art joining forces I thought it might be fun to show some of the process that has gone into brining you the focus of JCU Sunday Funnies since its inception.

Out of the Past and Present
With an available backlog of concepts to follow the first new idea in two decades it seemed like a good idea to move forward with You Are Here as a weekly feature on the JCU site.  In order to leave the door open for other such cartooning pursuits down the line I chose to publish under the JCU Sunday Funnies imprint.  This turned out to be a shrewd maneuver as there will in fact be a new cartoon in the mix next Sunday.  At the time I was trying to be forward thinking but also wondered if I could perpetuate this new comic for more than six months.  None the less I decided to have faith that I could have a new concept cross my thoughts often enough to maintain the feature and bolster the backlog of ideas I had come to call “The 20  Year Club”. 

I need not have worried, however.  After an exhaustive search of my files I was able to dig up my original sketches for many of the comics that have been seen thus far or are coming in the near future and send them to Bobby along with notes on what I had in mind.  Within days his first new endeavors began to arrive in my email inbox.  The first two cartoons I received would become You Are Here #2 and You Are Here #7, both based on older concepts and sketches.  While these and other cartoons were rolling in two at a time I was coming up with new ideas and sending them to Bobby as well.  As a result, half of the first ten cartoons to be produced at full were based on brand new ideas that had come to me since the one that started it all.  As of this writing new ideas finalized into cartoons have been running roughly neck and neck by volume with the volume of the new exceeding that of the old by only two or three cartoons.

Varied Visions
From the outset the process involved in bringing my concepts to life for this series has remained largely unchanged.  Initially I sent Bobby scans of the original art from years past for as many of the cartoons as I could find in my files along with one or two concept sketches for new ideas.  With all of that in place I had the freedom to dig around in hopes of finding more of the art.  In the mean time Bobby had set to work on churning out enough of these comics that by early April I felt it was safe to begin weekly publication.  It was during this time that I began to realize something I would not define at full for some time, that as a cartoonist I am a much better illustrator.  Teaming up with Bobby on You Are Here brought this fact out again and again.  A prime example of this was the “honey bear” cartoon in which a bear dons a beekeeper’s protective gear to have a better shot at the honey he craves.  My 20 year old drawing had a cartoony bear but rather realistic bees watching over the hive.  When I received Bobby’s finished work I was taken aback by the anthropomorphic bees in the cartoon at first.  I quickly realized that this was as it should be, this was a cartoon after all! 

The bees and bear cartoon was not the only one over the months of the collaboration thus far in which Bobby took me by surprise in altering the images from my rough sketches.  The Turtle Homeowners Association was definitely one that falls into this category.  In my sketch the turtles were, well, turtles.  They walked on all fours and were only cartoon-like in their smiles and the vacuous stares of the representatives of the Association who were plaguing the old turtle.  Oddly enough I had talked with Bobby at a convention a few days before he completed that cartoon and he described envisioning one of the turtles holding a clipboard.  Despite this, I was still initially surprised by his take on the concept.  Mind you, it was a pleasant surprise.  Again I was confronted with the realization that as a cartoon the characters far much better in a cartoon form rather than a semi-realistic form. 

If you have ever met Bobby or heard him speak of his work on Hey Kids, Comics! (check out that show here) then you know he will always undersell his art.  More often than not when he sends two to four finished cartoons my way he will point out that he can change anything that is wrong or just start over from scratch.  In fact there have been so very few running changes to his work that I question his questioning of his skill!  In the case of the honey bear I had him change the color of the hatband to make it read more like a beekeeper’s helmet than a park ranger’s hat.  “Brush With Death” was reworked to make the placement of the man’s head seem more in line with his reflection and I had to insist that the nipples on Kermit and Miss Piggy’s baby be removed.  A Muppet with nipples just read too creepy for the already creepy image.  In fact the only cartoon in the series to date that had to go back and forth between us was the navy man.  That was an unusual one in that it was the only one with color in the rough sketch (added with a highlighter) and the only one where getting the color right on the final image was at issue.  Initially the hue utilized played was too light for those who got to see it in advance to read as navy.  A quick darkening of the shade brought the character’s tone more to what was expected by most without being too dark to see the features. 

This hue just did not convey navy blue.
The character to the right of the panel was the only other running change.  I felt perhaps his reaction was a bit too extreme.  Bobby graciously redrew him with just a smile and I shopped both versions to those who had helped work out the color pallet.  Unanimously, it turned out, the opinion was that the shocked expression sold the joke far better than the relaxed version.   In many ways that cartoon was a valuable lesson to just let the master do his magic.  That is why I elected to work with Bobby in the first place.  As an artist his sense of the range of expression is ideal for a comic of this kind.  In fact that ability came to bear most fully in the Vulcan Surprise Party.  The level of dispassionate indifference conveyed in the faces of the birthday boy and those throwing his party sells the joke far more than the equally emotionless dialogue!

Keeping Fit
One of  the biggest challenges on both sides of the collaboration has been fitting everything into the panel.  Early on the format was somewhat new to me and my ambitions in the cartoons concepts often exceeded the space available.  The Clown Compact cartoon brought that to my attention.  The initial concept included three classes of automobile, Compact, Sub-Compact, and Clown Compact.  Space constraints within the square panel forced Bobby to edit the concept and let the dialogue sell the joke as much as the image.  Again his sensibility was right on target and the cartoon worked in spite of being down one car model. 

The ham-fisted attempt to convey the idea behind the Clown Car cartoon.

Here and there certain elements of my original concepts have had to be trimmed or eliminated outright.  Bobby has been very good about consulting me before making drastic changes, so to say I have been most pleased with the series to date is something of an understatement.  In the case of the elephant and the game show the space constraints were rather unique to the cartoon.  Every element originally envisioned was there, save one.  In the original concept the game show host’s dialogue was to be under the cartoon and the name of the show, which was not part of the original 20 years ago, was to be in lights above the contestants.  Space dictated that a change in plans must be made and Bobby took the liberty of putting the dialogue in a word bubble and captioning the cartoon with the name of the show and calling it, “Everyone’s Favorite Game Show”, a change that helped drive home the joke far more effectively.

As he churns out more and more cartoons for this series, Bobby has adjusted his style in such a way to accommodate some of the busier designs I send his way.  Perhaps the greatest example of this was the very demanding Richard Scary cartoon.  Every element of the original concept sketch but one, the lower half of the composition, appears in the final work.  Due to space constraints he was forced to jettison the flat tires on the Apple Car as well as lowly worm’s trademark hat laying on the pavement.  Not vitally important elements to be sure, and in the end his blocking of an incredibly busy arrangement of characters and ancillary aspects, not the least of which is the Crime Scene tape, makes that cartoon one of his most outstanding creations to date and a personal favorite.

Artistic License
Something else Bobby does quite well is to add his own very Bobby Blakey flourishes to the cartoons.  When the Monkey’s Pa cartoon arrived I did not realize at first that he was utilizing his movie reviewing gorilla, Doug, as the monkey in question.  This was not at all surprising when I considered that Bobby has a tendency to sneak his original characters into the artwork of others whenever he is a participating inker in “Finish It! Finish It!” at All-Con.  When I sent him the Earth Warning Label concept sketch I deliberately designed an original alien for the cartoon so as not to seem to expect that he use one of his characters from Last Stop.  Despite my efforts he managed to replace my creature with Klunk from his ongoing web comic.  Nothing like a shameless self-promoting plug, I say!

There have been other additions to the original composition as presented along the way as well.  TheUgnaughts cartoon originally featured only the dismantled Tin Man in a crate and a pair of the diminutive porcine workers from Bespin.  Bobby recalled that this denizen of Oz would be incomplete without his axe and also presented a rather gruesome take on the character’s greatest desire with a disembodied heart laying on the conveyor belt!  At first I felt that may play a bit too extreme, but then thought better of it and let the cartoon publish as presented.  I had learned to stop second-guessing my artist. 

The personalization of the “answering the fax machine” cartoon was another way in which Bobby brings more to the table than just his art.  The heading, “Message from JediCole”, on the fax page emerging from the character’s mouth just added an extra element to the joke.  Similarly the tie, clipboard, and glasses for the turtles in the aforementioned turtle cartoon made the two pristine turtles seem only the more officious.  Then there was a visual element that Bobby added to the Brush With Death that was nothing short of brilliant!  In my original sketch for this concept from 20 years back and in its replacement (the original eludes me to this day) I simply had the Grim Reaper and the pajama-clad character busily cleaning their teeth.  Bobby shrewdly realized that, absent saliva, Death’s toothpaste would not foam up like that of his living counterpart.  That he made that distinction clear so simply in his drawing really added something special to the overall joke. 

Two by Two
One thing that I have learned as I have been working with Bobby on this cartoon was that he draws and submits the new comics two at a time.  While they tend to arrive to me in twos and fours I had never made the connection as I am usually too thrilled to see what he has done with my concepts.  While I have received as many as six in one submission, Bobby generally has three to four times that many concept sketches and descriptions on hand from which to choose his next endeavor.  A full year’s worth of cartoons have been published, completed, or roughed out at this point and every time I feel that this will protect me from inevitable creative doldrums, two or three more concepts rattle out and are sent to my self-deprecating artist friend. 

My original concept art for the woolly mammoth cartoon.

Somehow I have yet to burn Bobby out on this series despite sending so many ideas that he would have to devote a month to catching up were we not so far ahead of the publication schedule on a fairly constant basis.  In fact the scheduling of any given cartoon is rather fluid as I will line up the completed work in an order that I like only to have two or four more finished pieces arrive in my in box that have me rearranging the whole schedule to move new favorites to the top of the queue!  As I was writing this very article I got word that two more cartoons were in the works and would be in my hands very soon.  This means that I will now have eight cartoons completed and will likely rearrange the present schedule yet again depending on which of the more than 25 concepts he has at his disposal he has chosen to tackle.

A sneak preview of one of the new cartoons mentioned above.

It Has a Name
As this glimpse into what it takes to bring you the weekly gags of You Are Here concludes I wanted to share a little inside information from the production, specifically the definition of a common aspect of Bobby’s art for this series.  I am speaking of an expression that has become so prevalent that a term had to be coined to describe it…the Blakey Gawk! 

The Blakey Gawk is one of my favorite aspects of You Are Here as it turns any given character in the scene into an instant straight man.  While I realize that such an expression of shock or dismay is likely one of the more universal tools at the disposal of cartoonists, the way in which it can sell my jokes makes it nothing short of remarkable.   From exasperated game show contestants to surprised aliens to even Muppets, the Blakey Gawk has helped convey all a variety of reactions to the absurd notions presented in these cartoons.  And from this moment forward you too will refer to this expression as the Blakey Gawk.  It will certainly occur often in the future unless this article has made the intrepid artist self-conscious about that aspect of his work.  Even still, there is at least one example of the gawk in an as yet unpublished cartoon.  Below is a sneak peek at that cartoon that does not give away the joke, just its Blakey Gawk! 

Now you have some insight into what it takes to bring you JCU Sunday Funnies each week.  I sincerely hope that everyone who reads this article has enjoyed at least one if not more of the cartoons in the series to date.  I have found that different cartoons speak to different people, illustrating the diversity of appeal to the ideas that rattle out of my head at an alarming rate.  I certainly look forward to continuing this series with the help of Bobby’s dead-on artistic interpretations.  I will also be expanding the Sunday Funnies  lineup starting next week with an occasional second feature.  

From the outset of You Are Here I have had a variety of ideas suggested to me by Mrs. JediCole and others that have not been introduced into the series.  The reason for this is simply because I wanted to maintain a kind of creative ownership of the cartoon, to be its sole writer.  This has resulted in some really funny concepts going the way of my 20 year old ones, falling into unknown obscurity.  Since Bobby helped rescue my old ideas from such a fate I have determined to launch a new recurring series that will showcase the art and/or writing of other creators.  Look for the first cartoon of the new series to accompany You Are Here #26 next Sunday!

2012: The Year of the JCU

Since I have always been more than happy to buck tradition, it is of little wonder that, unlike so many who chronicle things in America, I refused to review the year that was until that year was actually OVER!  So now that 2012 has shuffled off to the Archipelago of Last Years and a giant-eared Baby New Year named 2013 has arrived in spite of Mayan threats to the contrary, The JediCole Universe is proud to present not only our first Year in Review, but also a kind of Years in Review if you will.  After all, as this is the first time we've bothered, there are a lot of years to make up for, really.

Before I delve into 2012, by far the biggest year for the JCU,  a brief overview of the past is in order.  This website was launched, believe it or not, in 2008.  It took over a year to finally get around to posting content, however, since the focus of the site was a work in progress.  While I was already actively podcasting and writing over at The United States of Geekdom, there were podcasts (one shot and recurring) I had in mind that would eat up space on the USG feed as well some writings that I really wanted to have their own venue due to their more personal nature.  Thus was the new website born, at least after I finally hit upon the name, The JediCole Universe.  It seemed fitting given the scope of what I had in mind.  Though it took quite a while to realize that ambition at full.

I actually got my start in podcasting back in 2006 with VaderCast, a Star Wars-themed podcast that evolved over time to take on a great number of topics before it was no more.  For more on my early podcasting history click here.  During my tenure on VaderCast (which saw me and the show’s founder Tim Kennedy the only charter cast members to remain on the show from start to finish), I met Rick Gutierrez and introduced him to the world of podcasting as a new member of the show.  He would go on to found and produce his own podcast, Amazing Comicast, which lasted 60 episodes.  I joined that show early on as the new co-host and remained through its eventual change in name and format.  As we began covering non-comic book topics at least as much as comic book topics the show was discontinued and replaced with The United States of Geekdom, a podcast that I still co-host to this day.

With the USG a new element was added to my podcasting experience, a content-driven web page.  So it was that I went from simply talking up topics on podcast shows to publishing written articles that provided more in-depth insights or just showcased my abilities as a creative writer.  In that sense The JediCole Universe was something of an inevitability.  The more I wrote and produced the more I found I not only wanted, but needed to write and produce.  While that drive did not serve to get this site off the ground very quickly, it did help bring most of the features you can find here today to the forefront.  And once I had enough material and potential material I began to concentrate on the site in earnest. 

The first edition JCU trading card.
By July of 2010 the JCU site was beginning to come of its own.  It received a (then) record spike in page views at a whopping 251 for the month.  After that, page views began to wax and wane and not quite reach that peak again until this year.  In January the site enjoyed 238 views, rose to just shy of its record in February with 250, and then exceeded that the next month with 260 page views.  By May a new record of 295 was achieved, followed by a slump in June that was more than rectified in July with 598 views in the course of that month.  Between August and October the views climbed from the 500s to the 700s (796 in October) before hitting our record to date in November – 1036 page views!  Just over a thousand page views may not seem like much, but when the average was about 225 in the past, cresting the 1000 mark is quite the accomplishment.
During the course of last year I have successfully published 3 new editions of my recurring feature What Would Comic Book Villains Do?, brought back Jedi Justifications, and created It Came From the Dollar Store! and The Rantcor Pit.  2012 also saw the beginning of the longest running continuous feature of The JediCole Universe, Hey Kids, Comics!  The JCU’s weekly comic book podcast has been an amazing experience that compliments well my podcasting over at the USG.  With nearly 25 episodes behind us and no shortage of new shows ahead, this has been quite the year.

Looking over the statistics for the year something rather surprising was revealed.  An article I composed in 2011, Marvelution: The Shot Heard ‘Round the Comic Industry has risen to become the number one most viewed feature on the JCU site, followed by the third issue of Hey Kids, Comics!  which slowly made its way up the top five until it arrived firmly in the number two slot.  What Would Comic Book Villains Do? was read live at All-Con 2012 during my talk show, JediCole’s Morning After (which can be heard here) and a different edition was to be read at another convention but sadly that show did not prove viable and the reading was cancelled.  None the less, the series has become the most popular recurring feature on this site after the weekly podcast I produce with Andy.

The official JCU bumper sticker.
2012 also saw the first high-profile promotional materials for the JCU produced.  At the suggestion of Star Wars Super Collector’s Wishbook author Geoffrey Carlton, I eschewed my traditional fliers and invested a surprisingly small amount in a run of 1000 trading cards.  Over 900 of these were handed out at Star Wars Celebration VI in Orlando and inspired me to create even more promotional items.  The JCU has since seen a second run of trading cards (in a new style), a run of post  cards (to be distributed widely at All-Con 2013), bumper stickers, a vinyl banner, and even a run of postcards for our old friend the Mighty Placeholder!  And thanks to the persistence of my friend and co-host Andrew Farmer, the JCU now has a Twitter account (@thejedicoleU) and will soon sport a brand new look on this very website.  And, while not largely utilized as of yet, our new Forums page was added just this year.

The second JCU trading card, currently in circulation.
Looking ahead to the new year, there are two major changes in store.  The first is the aforementioned new look for the site.  I have narrowed the field to two template choices and will have the new look finalized in early January.  Also just after the 2013 arrives, as announced, the Convention Awareness Project – Texas will move from being a feature on this site to having its own committed page!  You will now have a one stop locale for news and information on the Texas convention scene.  But it does not stop there!  The Convention Awareness Project will be expanded with coverage of additional shows in other parts of the country in a recurring feature on the main JCU page.  Andrew and Rick have offered to provide news and articles regarding conventions in other states throughout the year, so be sure to check in for more convention information soon.

The official JCU promotional postcard - to be appearing at various comic conventions all year.
In the new year you can expect more from JCU favorites like Jedi Justifications, It Came From the Dollar Store, Points of Interest, The Rantcor Pit, What Would Comic Book Villains Do?, Odd eBay, and Collection CornerWho Do You Love, Half-Ass Roundtable, The Collector’s Piece, Super Geek-Out, and JediCole’s Open Mic Night will all see new life in the new year, many after a long absence.  And you can expect several new features including Site Seeing, Join the Club, and the long-awaited Japanese ball-jointed doll podcast, Doll Shelves, to join the JCU in the new year.

Thank you to everyone who has been a part of making 2012 the best year so far for The JediCole Universe!  From fellow podcasters to friends and family, to everyone who listens to the podcasts and reads my many articles, you have all played a role in making this website one of the most fulfilling aspects of my life.  I look forward to bringing laughter and insights and just plain geekiness to you in an even bigger way in 2013!

Cole “JediCole” Houston
Jedi at Large – The JediCole Universe
Raconteur Emeritus – The United States of Geekdom
Head Half-Ass – Half-Ass Productions
Group Captain, Games and Theory – All-Con 2013