?With Blu-rays and streaming options increasingly replacing DVDs, the format that permanently changed the home video landscape is now struggling to remain relevant. Happily though, it’s not quite time to start eulogizing DVDs just yet. Until streams and clouds and other natural sounding bits of tech that the common man doesn’t quite understand become more fully integrated in our day to day lives, actual discs are going to stick around. Perhaps the key reason as to why this is likely to stay the same for the immediate future is because DVDs and Blu-rays still include exclusives that can’t be completely replicated elsewhere yet. Want to hear Sin City with the original audience reaction track or go explore the production of Watchmen with Zack Snyder? Good luck trying to do so if streaming is your only option.
There are literally thousands of nerdcentric special features on DVDs and Blu-rays that have been released over the years. Due to the sheer volume of these things you have naturally overlooked some. So today Topless Robot will focus on 10 great exclusives available for the formats that you may have missed (excluding “making of” documentaries, which recently were given a list of their own on this site). These curiosities span a variety of topics ranging from action figure collecting to paying tribute to comic book legends. Seeing how the titles featured here are based on my personal viewing experience, some of your favorites may not have made the cut. So be sure to mention what exclusives you love that I ignored in the comments. With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s fire up our players and begin.
10) The Adventures of Superpup
Look in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a….tiny dude in a shoddy dog costume? When Susan Sontag wrote her influential essay “Notes on “Camp”,” she could very well have been inspired by the joyful awfulness of The Adventures of Superpup. Filmed in 1958 but never aired, this unbelievable TV pilot features little people in animal costumes chronicles the adventures of Krypton’s top dog. “Superpup is really Bark Bent, star reporter for the Daily Bugle” states a mouse hand puppet at the start of the show, and things get stranger from there. (Comic conspiracy time: did Marvel catch wind of this program and rip off the name of the Daily Bugle for their own purposes?) When the Superman Ultimate Collector’s Edition set was released back in 2006, it came packed with all of the films, terrific making of documentaries and various oddities, of which this was clearly the oddest. It’s strange curiosities like this one that initially made DVDs so unique. No one in their right mind would buy this separately, but as a bonus it is invaluable both as a kitschy document and a remarkable piece of Superman history. There’s no audio commentary to go along with The Adventures of Superpup, so we may never know why it switches from color to black-and-white midway through…or how they expected this to actually air on television without permanently scarring an entire generation. These truly rank amongst the mysteries of the ages.
9) The Irresistible Charm of Dan DeCarlo: The Man and His Art
?About a minute in to this documentary that is included as a bonus on the Josie and the Pussycats: The Complete Series DVD, artist and oddball comics aficionado Scott Shaw refers to Dan DeCarlo as “The most famous unknown cartoonist in America.” That’s an extremely accurate assessment, because although DeCarlo isn’t a household name his work is instantly recognizable (think sexy comic book gals). He is best known for revamping the look of Archie comics in the 1960s, an artistic template that is still followed today, and for creating Josie — a character who got her name and persona from DeCarlo’s late, beloved wife. But her influence didn’t end there. This doc also reveals that the outfits of Josie and the Pussycats were inspired by a costume the real Josie once wore to a party (in a nice touch, a vintage snapshot from the event featuring the cat suit is briefly shown). Elsewhere, Stan Lee pops up to discuss DeCarlo’s work on Marvel’s Millie the Model and the pair’s Willie Lumpkin newspaper strip, and the likes of Mark Evanier — whose insights make retrospectives like this one invaluable — and Paul Dini also appear to sing their praises for the late artist. Unfortunately, the issue of his lawsuit with Archie Comics over ownership of the Josie and the Pussycats characters and his unceremonious dismissal from the company shortly thereafter is neatly sidestepped here. That small gripe aside, the documentary should be required viewing if you ever found yourself caught up in the dilemma of choosing between Betty and Veronica.
8) I Yam What I Yam: The Story of Popeye the Sailor
Toot toot! Tucked away in the special features of the Popeye the Sailor: 1933-1938, Volume 1 DVD set is this documentary about everybody’s favorite short-tempered spinach guzzler. From his debut as a throwaway character in Elzie Segar’s Thimble Theatre comic strip through to Paul Reiser’s ill-advised Popeye’s Voyage: The Quest for Pappy, it provides a definitive overview of Popeye. The most interesting thing about I Yam What I Yam is its subtle condemnation of how Popeye has been emasculated over the years. The early Max and Dave Fleischer Popeye shorts are symphonies of anarchy that, if you’ll pardon the pun, still pack a punch today. In fact, the genealogy of unrelenting violence celebrated by Tom and Jerry (or Itchy and Scratchy for that matter) can be traced back directly to the Fleischers’ output from the late-1930s and early-1940s. As the years progressed, Popeye lost his edge even as his cartoons spawned a cottage industry of TV shows featuring the Fleischer and Paramount shorts hosted by a string of local celebrities. These sorts of programs are touched upon here, adding another fascinating wrinkle to Popeye lore. IDW’s upcoming comic revival by Roger Langridge should restore some of the surly sailor’s faded glory. Until then, this documentary is a reminder that Popeye’s greatest strength might just be his staying power.
7) Dwarfing USA
In 1992, Red Dwarf creators Rob Grant and Doug Naylor were given the opportunity to adapt their seminal sci-fi sitcom for American audiences. The results were not pretty. Teaming up with producer Linwood Boomer – who would subsequently go on to create Malcolm in the Middle – Grant and Naylor found themselves working on a pilot that became a soulless version of “The End.” At least they weren’t alone. Robert Llewellyn was on hand to reprise his role as Kryten (a move which he initially had to keep quiet about to his U.K. co-stars). Other notables in the cast were Craig Bierko as Lister and future Frasier actress Jane Leeves as Holly. After the initial pilot was rejected by NBC, some new scenes were shot with the characters of Rimmer and The Cat being recast (with the role of the latter being taken on by Deep Space Nine‘s Terry Farrell). This second pilot didn’t catch on with the execs either, so the remake was ultimately scrapped. For a complete examination of the doomed series, check out Llewellyn’s autobiography The Man in the Rubber Mask and the Dwarfing USA documentary featured on the Red Dwarf V DVD set. The nearly half-hour program features Naylor and Llewellyn discussing their involvement with the pilot and, even better, Craig Charles, Danny John Jules and Chris Barrie candidly opening up about their feelings on the project (Craig Charles is the most vocal, rightly referring to it as “White Dwarf” given the U.S. cast’s lack of racial diversity). Rights issues resulted in the pilots themselves not being featured on the DVD, but you can track them down easily enough online. As for Dwarfing USA itself, it is a trip down the rabbit hole into an unfamiliar world of showbiz politics and the complications that arise when a niche property is adapted for a mainstream audience.
6) Back to the Future: The Ride
Realizing that consumers would have to travel to Japan to experience the closed-in-the-U.S. Back to the Future ride and all of its Biff-induced mayhem, Universal did fans of the trilogy a solid by including this as a bonus feature on the DVD and Blu-ray releases. With a script co-written by Bob Gale and starring Christopher Lloyd and Thomas F. Wilson, the ride was the closest thing we ever got to another Back to the Future movie. Both the “Institute of Future Technology” footage that played in the waiting area as well as the ride itself are included in order to recreate the experience of actually visiting the attraction as accurately as possible. Well, without having to install hydraulics on your sofa. Back to the Future: The Ride is big, loud silly fun that is fondly remembered amongst everyone who ever spent hours waiting to climb aboard it. Thanks to some screwy aspect ratios, the first DVD release of the Back to the Future films was a bit of a nightmare. When the re-released discs arrived in 2009, Universal more than made up for their original errors by taking careful consideration to include a great deal of flotsam and jetsam related to the films (minus the terrible cartoon series the movies inspired). And here we are. Seeing dead amusement park rides captured on DVD and Blu-ray like this is pure wonder, the stuff that special feature dreams are made of. This requiem for the ride can never replace the real thing, but the nostalgia it triggers is nearly as good.
5) The Muppets on Puppets
Not too long before the debut of Sesame Street, Jim Henson took to the public television airwaves to discuss his techniques and speak about the history and techniques of puppetry in The Muppets on Puppets. He was joined by Frank Oz, Jerry Juhl (the man responsible for writing much of Kermit and company’s best material) and legendary Muppet designer Don Sahlin for an hour-long analysis of the ways inanimate clumps of felt can be brought vividly to life. Included as a special feature on The Muppet Show: Season Three DVD, the program is a master class on the artform of puppetry that mixes elegant demonstrations with Jim Henson’s trademark irreverence. Maybe a bit too much irreverence. As you can see in the video above, the special is crammed with weird moments. Rowlf handling a puppet is mind-blowing enough, but for an encore Henson goes on to tell him that he isn’t a real dog at all. I bet you didn’t think you’d see a puppet have an existential crisis today, did you?
4) Empire of Dreams: The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy
When the Star Wars trilogy finally hit DVD in 2004, it was accompanied by a disc of special features whose highlight was this documentary from Kevin Burns. It would have been easy for the doc to simply rehash the now-familiar tale of how an apparently ordinary sci-fi flick unexpectedly became a sci-fi phenomenon, but Burns forgoes the obvious path and utilizes rare clips, vintage and new interviews and pop cultural oddities — such as the amazing footage of Threepio and Artoo getting immortalized in concrete at Grauman’s Chinese Theater featured above – to contextualize the myriad ways in which George Lucas reinvented the art of filmmaking and marketing. Seeing how the bearded one has alienated his fans over the years, it’s easy to forget exactly what he accomplished in the time before special editions and prequels (feel free to add Ewoks to that list as well). Like J.W. Rinzler’s “making of” books about the flicks, Empire of Dreams revels in the chaotic serendipity that resulted in the creation of a galaxy far, far away. Now for those of you who may feel that this entry is being way to kind to the Flannelled Wonder let me just wrap things up by saying that Lucas left this documentary off of the recent Blu-ray release of trilogy for reasons unknown. Motherfucker.
3) Star Trek Summit
Best described as the nerdiest episode of Inside the Actor’s Studio that never aired, the Star Trek Summit brings together William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes and Whoopi Goldberg for an hour-long discussion on all-things Star Trek. Ever want to see Patrick Stewart rocking a pornstache or hear the cast busting on how Malcolm McDowell? Look no further. Created exclusively for the Star Trek: The Original Motion Picture DVD and Blu-rays, the conversation is a free-wheeling exploration of the impact that Trek has had on these actors’ careers and pop culture in general. Even the most jaded Trekker will find something to enjoy here, be it from Stewart erroneously claiming that Nichelle Nichols once appeared on Star Trek: The Next Generation to the revelation of how the infamous “Picard Maneuver” came to be. Whoopi Goldberg does a stellar job of moving things along, while all of the participants check their egos at the door. The loose atmosphere leads to candid revelations of diva-like behavior and creepy fan encounters. In short, it’s the most informative and bullshit-free chat about Trek ever caught on film.
2) The Super Powers Collection: The Effect of the Toy Industry on the Super Friends
?While moving from Lubbock, Texas to Los Angeles in 1986, Mark Waid had a premonition that the sought-after Cyborg figure from Mattel’s Super Powers Collection was available at a nearby K-Mart. Deciding to follow his intuition, the writer took a break from his journey to check out the store and — lo and behold! — there the toy was. It’s a heartwarming story that every nerd can either relate to or cite a similar example from their personal experiences. The anecdote is the emotional highpoint of this bonus that is included on Warner’s Super Friends: The Legendary Super Powers Show release. The featurette is presented in a fun, quasi-I Love the 80s framework and provides more info than you could possibly ever want about the history of the Super Powers action figure line on which the series was based. So what is this entry’s action feature? Pure awesomeness of course!
1) Jack Kirby: Storyteller
The less said about the two Fantastic Four movies the better. But trust me when I mention that you all need to pick up the extended edition DVDs. I know what you are saying, why would you possibly want to see more of the films that introduced audiences to Jessica Alba’s miscast Invisible Woman and the Galactus cloud of bullshit? Mainly because they each include comic-centric documentaries that will make you happier than the Thing at a trenchcoat sale. Rise of the Silver Surfer includes a feature dedicated to the history of the sentinel of the spaceways, while its predecessor is highlighted by the heartfelt documentary Jack Kirby: Storyteller. Spanning the course of 100 minutes, this film is a celebration of King Kirby and his works. The meat of Storyteller is talking head interviews in which comic luminaries like Bruce Timm, Neal Adams, Walter Simonson, Alex Ross, Jim Lee, John Romita, Sr. and others share their personal recollections on how Kirby shaped their careers. Their words are punctuated by rare personal photos and stunning early Kirby art that shows how considerable his talents already were by the time he had reached his teens. Taking a break from the hero worship, the film spends a few minutes focusing on how Kirby felt pushed around and slighted by the industry that he gave so much to. Given the well-publicized problems he had with Marvel over the years, to neglect this vital aspect of his career would be doing viewers a disservice and result in the project being little more than a lightweight fluff piece. Not that such a thing would be terrible — just see the previously mentioned DeCarlo entry — but it would feel oddly disingenuous. Comic book documentaries tend to be a bit dry, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover this was not the case here. Anecdotes abound about how Jack Kirby and his wife Roz loved their fans… even if they were members of a strange UFO cult who stopped by their home unannounced with hopes of whisking Jack off to the cosmos. These funny stories give a glimpse inside the dynamics of the pair’s marriage. In fact, Jack/Roz love story is much of the focus of the documentary and it is profoundly moving. This ultimately is such a strong feature because it presents a well-rounded portrait of what the man must have been truly like. He was a legend to be sure. But he was also the guy who would show you his weathered drawing desk then host an impromptu barbecue. Jack Kirby: Storyteller peels back the layers of fandom to present a portrait of an ordinary, hard-working man. Just one who also happened to change comics forever.