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C2E2 2011: Archaia and the Early Works of Jim Henson

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Several generations have grown up with the work of the late Jim Henson. From The Muppet Show to Sesame Street to Fraggle Rock to The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, Henson’s boundless imagination has had a profound influence on countless people. But many are unfamiliar with the early, more experimental stages of his career in the 1960s. Archaia Comics set out to change this at their panel at C2E2 and with their upcoming projects that draw inspiration from the Henson vault.

On hand were Archaia editor Stephen Christy, artist Ramon Perez, and Director of Archives for the Jim Henson Company, Karen Falk. The screening began with an animated short by Henson called Alexander the Grape. This cartoon was somewhat crude and unfinished but had an undeniable charm. The puniest grape in the bunch, Alexander desires to be an enormous watermelon and goes through a series of humorous transformations to reach this goal.

Next in the screening was Time Piece, a very striking live action short film of about nine minutes. Almost completely devoid of dialogue (other than a few meek cries of “Help” from Henson), Time Piece consists of a series of interspersed scenes of everyday life set to syncopated sound effects. The creativity and structure of the film are quite extraordinary, as we jump between scenes in a hospital, an office, a restaurant, the zoo, the jungle, suburbia, and on a pogo stick, and watch Henson’s character transform and change appearance numerous times in the process.

Three very short works were shown together. Ripples was simply a collection of brief, contemplative footage of ripples in liquid surfaces. Henson’s Bufferin commercial, billed as “the weirdest aspirin commercial ever,” took us into the cobwebbed recesses of a man’s head and distorted memories of a day ruined by a splitting headache. A third piece called Cities, created for NBC, showed various shots of urban sprawl cut together through artistic camera pans, wipes, and irises.

Finally, we were shown a short clip from The Cube, a 1960s television special written by Henson and his frequent collaborator Jerry Juhl. This tale of paranoid fantasy focused on a man trapped inside a cube who seems to be the subject of a scientific experiment—or perhaps he is simply going mad. An attractive woman seduces him, only for doctors to burst in and take readings of his reaction to this “stimulus.” A man breaks the fourth wall to tell our hero that he is the subject of a television play, even going so far as to show him the ending (his future) on a screen. The Cube is at turns funny and very unsettling and it seems well worth seeking out the full version.

These works are a far cry from the kid-friendly entertainment Henson was later known for. According to Karen Falk, experimental filmmaking of this kind was dear to Henson and was perhaps where he hoped his career would go. Had he not gotten that fateful call from the Children’s Television Workshop to help develop Sesame Street, it very well might have.

In keeping with this spirit of innovation and counterculture exploration, Archaia spoke about their next big collaboration with the Jim Henson Company. The upcoming graphic novel, A Tale of Sand, will be based on an unproduced screenplay by Henson. It concerns a man who awakens in a town in the middle of a desert with no memory of how he got there. He is informed that “the race is about to begin” and as he sets off across the sands, he soon sees a figure in the distance chasing him. As he seeks to unravel this mystery, the man slowly begins to lose his grip on reality.

A Tale of Sand is likened to “Alice in Wonderland meets 127 Hours if directed by Jim Henson.” Henson’s daughter, Lisa (Co-CEO of the Henson Company), is working very closely with Archaia. In an unusual departure, no comic book script has been adapted from the material. Artist Ramon Perez is working directly from the screenplay itself. Perez stated that as he sat down to read the screenplay, “the movie started rolling in my head” and he had already laid out 30 pages in short order. The final book will be over 100 pages.

Archaia also discussed other Henson-inspired works, such as comics based on The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. These will be quite thrilling for fans of these films as Brian Froud, who designed the creatures and worlds of the movies, has been brought in to work with Archaia. Froud has created an entire origin story for Thra, the world of The Dark Crystal, involving the son of the one-eyed seer Aughra. This new character will play a part in the cracking of the famous crystal. Archaia also hinted that they may soon have an announcement related to Henson’s dark fantasy series of the late 1980s, The Storyteller.

The panel and screening were a very entertaining and eye-opening look into the mind of Jim Henson. As beloved as the Muppets and Fraggles are, it’s clear that the brilliance of Henson extended beyond the felt-covered icons of our childhood.

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