I would not consider myself the biggest fan of Jim Henson's non-Muppets, Sesame Street, or Fraggle Rock work. I love Labyrinth, and remember being enthralled by The Storyteller in the late 1980s, but I have never even seen The Dark Crystal. However, the fact that I am not very knowledgeable about his wider body of work does not mean that I am not aware of it, or that I don't recognize him as a visionary creator. That is why I was excited to attended the panel presented by Archaia Comics and The Jim Henson Company at C2E2. In attendance were Henson archivist Karen Falk and Archaia Comics editor-in-chief Stephen Christy, as well as artist Ramón Perez. They presented some of Henson's early film work from the archive and held a discussion about the upcoming A Tale of Sand original graphic novel, with Perez as the artist, which was described as one of the biggest undertakings Archaia Comics has ever done. They also debuted art from the graphic novel, which can be seen below.
The entire panel was fascinating, and definitely a highlight of the convention for me. As I mentioned at the start, I did not have a great deal of familiarity with Henson's non-family oriented material, so getting to see his early short films, which Falk presented, was a real treat. The first was the never-before-seen "Alexander the Grape," from the 1960s, about the smallest grape in the bunch, who wants to be a watermelon, only to realize it was better being a grape. Unfortunately, they were unable to locate all the animation, but they did have the complete soundtrack, so they filled in what was missing with Henson's storyboards. The cartoon reminded me of something that might have eventually been seen on Sesame Street. It was very cute, but still smart and funny.
Above is a clip from "Time Piece" (1964), which was shown next. This was a very experimental film staring Jim Henson himself, which had no dialog, but utilized sound effects and Jazz music in its place. "Time Piece" was based on 24 pages of storyboards by Henson, and what struck me most about it was that, while it was very avant garde, it also managed to be quite funny.
Falk then presented "Ripples", a Bufferin commercial from Henson's days working in advertising, and "Cities," which was produced as the opening for an NBC news program. All three of these were concerned with the human thought process and where ideas came from. To a certain extent, this theme carried forward into the final clip shown, which was ultimately about being trapped inside one's own thoughts. The Cuben (below), was a drama series Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl produced for NBC, reminiscent of something like The Prisoner. The theme of reality versus fiction was prevalent.
After the short film presentation, the panelists began the discussion of the A Tale of Sand graphic novel. At the start of the panel, Stephen Christy noted that when they started their licensing agreement with The Jim Henson Company they wanted to go into the vaults and find the lost stuff. A Tale of Sand is based on a screenplay written by Henson and Jerry Juhl in the late 1960s and early 1970s (the version being used for the graphic novel is the final draft from 1974), the last unproduced full script in the vault. It gets into the head space of a man who is figuring out what he wants to do and how to do it at the start of his career, and Henson wound up recycling a lot from it in his other movies. At this point Henson had almost two careers, one with the Muppets and one with his more counter-culture work. He did not want to be pigeonholed as a children's performer, and this script is a glimpse into the other career he could have had.
Not much was said about what the script was about (and I wonder if that even matters, since that's not the selling point at all), but it was said that the Hollywood pitch would be Alice in Wonderland meets 127 Hours, if directed by Jim Henson. The script was very uncharacteristic of Henson's others in that there was just a script with very little other notes and no storyboards (keep in mind that "Time Piece" was filmed entirely from storyboards and there was no script). Also, since it was to be a live action film, he had not designed characters in his sketchbook.
The script is Jerry Juhl describing Henson's ideas with words. However, since this was the last full script from Henson, Lisa Henson, who is supervising the graphic novel very closely, wanted to stick as closely to it as possible. She is adamant that it would never be filmed and did not want a writer to adapt it for the graphic novel.
Ramón Perez was asked to do the art on A Tale of Sand and he said that, while he was unsure about drawing it directly from the film script, it was like a film started rolling in his mind when he read the first ten pages. His approach was to try and visualize the script through Jim Henson's mind as much as possible, and watching things like the short films presented at the start of the panel helped, since they were from the same time in Henson's career.
Readers will also be able to see a preview of Ramón Perez's A Tale of Sand in Archaia Comics' free Comic Book day offering, which will feature Mouseguard and a Dark Crystal prequel story.