Jim Henson’s love for visual media has touched the hearts of millions, over successive generations in American television and mixed media. To this day, his beloved creatures that walk and talk in the third dimension still endure. Many know him for his work on the Muppet Show, Labyrinth, and the Dark Crystal, but his earlier career in short film depicts a younger Henson first transgressing the conventions of film making, using stop motion animation and live action film to create a rich, immersing experience. His work at this period of time played on themes that were encapsulated through the filming process. Time Piece emphasized a stream-of-consciousness awareness of the trappings and confining nature of time. A few years later The Cube, an NBC sponsored teleplay, debuted with a deliberately existential aim: a man trapped in his thoughts and rooted in isolationism. Henson’s career as a filmmaker was ultimately deterred by the rapidly increasing popularity of the Muppets and, specifically, The Muppet Show, which then demanded his attention and focus.
But occasionally in Tolkienesque fashion, something is unearthed in the Henson archives. Tale of Sand is one such example, discovered by Karen Falk, Archives Director for the Jim Henson Company in Los Angeles. Although it endured through three stages of revisions, the ongoing evolution of the project from its genesis in 1967 to its final revision in 1974 represented what many believed to be the magnum-opus of Henson’s live action film career. While it was shopped around several production studios, the ambitious and articulate nature of the work made it untouchable.
When Archaia Entertainment entered into negotiations with The Henson Company in 2009 to produce graphic novels and comics based on popular Henson franchises such as The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, it was only the following year in 2010 when Archaia announced the publishing of Henson’s lost screenplay. Its success was unprecedented, taking home three Eisner awards in 2012 for Best Graphic Album, Best Publication Design, and Best Penciller/Inker. Jim’s daughter, Lisa Henson, praised the overall effort to recover her father’s dream of the project’s final conception, especially for Ramón Pérez’s ability to capture the vibrancy and colorful representation of the protagonist’s journey through the American Southwest. In the Afterword of Tale of Sand she remarks, “I feel that no other artist would have brought such an unparalleled vision to this project as Ramón. Ramón immediately understood the nuances and layers of the script, and brought to the project not only his incredible gift for storytelling but also his limitless drawing talent.” The scope of the project is ambitious, sometimes overwhelming and suffocating, but Tale of Sand is not what it appears to be. When taking a closer look, readers find themselves immersed in the mind of Mac, a solitary man making his way through life, facing its colorful bouquet of challenges and obstacles. Henson’s project realized both the claustrophobic psychological isolation of The Cube and leveraged the stream-of-consciousness narration of Time Piece. The end result is a multifaceted tale emphasizing life’s complications and how to transcend them authentically, without compromise.
One of the key elements of Tale of Sand is Henson’s use of interactive symbols and tools throughout the work. In film media, a symbol conjures mental images of abstract concepts embedded in dialogue or visual representations of scenery or on-screen action, but Henson’s unique approach to film changes the way this is enacted in Tale of Sand. Henson’s symbols are tangible and stark, appealing to the senses and vividly portrayed by Pérez’s illustrative abilities. Upon being forced out of the town, confused and alone, Mac opens his supply pack to investigate what the townspeople gave him. The objects he pulls out of his pack are a stop sign, a vinyl record labeled “Sound FX,” a wad of cash, a telescope, a key, and a match. He also possesses other objects like a symbolic key to the city, a bouquet of roses and a whistle with “For Emergencies” inscribed on the brass exterior. Henson’s artistically concrete understanding of symbols and representation then infuses each object with significance, with the intention of conveying conceptually that Mac has been entrusted various tools that will help him on his life journey.
The oversized key is a key to success in tough situations, while the smaller one he finds in his pack is never used. It instills irony, in that superficial achievement often produces success directly, and that, no matter the circumstance, there simply isn’t a “key” to right living. This is the same with the map given to Mac in the beginning of the narrative. He is told to both rely on the map, but at the same time, distrust the map. It’s a statement against having a set expectation in life, that one cannot live by a blueprint. Maps serve a purpose in generally laying out the progression of life and destiny, but they are always subject to change, and should not be relied upon wholeheartedly.
Of Mac’s allotment of tools that he must use to finish his quest each falls into one of two categories. Certain objects are entrusted to Mac while the others are acquired on his journey through happenstance. The rose bouquet is the first item to be used, symbolizing the need for protection and security. Walking through life, naively entrusting your fate to the will of others is bound to end badly, including Mac. The flowers save his life, showing that taking discretion in one’s walk through life is a necessity.
It is on the road, when Mac uses his next tool, the stop sign. In his journey, the stop sign secures recognition and worth in the eyes of others. Without means, Mac is unable to attract the attention of the cars as they pass him by, like many in life who do not possess the skills to draw attention to themselves. The introduction of the oppressive pursuant into the scene, with the lion leaping form the limo, transitions quickly into a scene of confrontation: there is such a thing as “bad” attention. The telescope is Mac’s means of searching for opportunity at a distance, though as he finds out, as he tracks a vaudevillian man carrying an ice cube across the desert plain, opportunity is fleeting and quickly missed. The whistle he gains from the two Victorian women playing golf in the desert represents redemption, and he uses it to call the cavalry (literally) to be extricated from a compromising situation.
In life, a means of redemption is never to be dismissed. Sometimes one needs to call on another for support, when life becomes hard and oppressive. It was Henson’s colorfully humorous means of saying it’s okay to look to someone for help when it is required. Having a wad of cash is always useful to make a quick getaway, as Mac uses it to escape his pursuant in the climax of the narrative. Last but not least, the Sound FX vinyl is a subdued symbol that permeates the whole arc of the story. Though it is used more comically as a means of retreating from his antagonist, music in the narrative gives life to the silent desert. Henson, who was so beloved for his songs and Muppet-produced music, showed an entire generation the cultural significance of music and its ability to communicate ideas and values. Music in Tale of Sand is the glue that holds the story together, the rhythm of life itself.
Going beyond the symbology of Tale of Sand, below the visual layers of the narrative is a deep psychological battle within the mind of Mac. The work in sum is described to be Surrealistic, however to stop here would do the work injustice, and leaves something to be desired. If the story is indeed about walking through life, then each conflict introduced in the progression of bizarre events serves to patchwork together grander pericopes that compose Mac’s consciousness. In the same fashion of The Cube, Henson’s work fluidly moves from one conflict to another, but in doing so constructs larger pictures of emotions in seemingly uncorrelated events. What is occurring amounts to Surrealistic Impressionism in Mac’s mind.
In the opening sequence of Tale of Sand, a loud commotion of color and music is introduced: a big band jazz ensemble and dance in full swing. In the clamor, Mac appears disoriented and confused. He has no idea where he is. Immediately, the scene transitions to the Rockwellian sheriff, who moves quickly into a task that will be entrusted to Mac. The energy of the two scenes when merged together paints a picture of an individual lost in mindless activity. Mac is immersed into a scene full of characters vying for his attention and admiration. The young woman steals him away, but only to lead him into obligation. Another sequence is when Mac finds a fire in the desert and attempts to light his cigarette when a caricature of Smokey the Bear runs into frame and puts out the fire. This is immediately followed by his sudden thirst, and the strange man running with a massive cube of ice on the horizon, followed by the disappointing confrontation with the elusive blonde that preys upon his weaknesses throughout the narrative.
This impressionistic sequence of events occurs sporadically in a stream-of-consciousness style pacing, constructing a negative perception of desire and its consequences. The first sequence shows Mac seeking a flame to sate his hunger for a cigarette, which he is continually denied until the end of the work, and in the second his thirst for water. Each he pursues reactionally, both ending in disappointment. The third sequence involves the blonde, who taunts him, and spurns his desire by pushing him into a pool filled with sharks. All three sequences piece together a multifaceted portrait of desire and the ramifications of such living to solely acquire conveniences. Mac is more successful in his journey as he learns to rely on the things entrusted to him, and taking things as they come.
The third and final act of the narrative involves building a concrete understanding of expectations. Again, this greater concept is illustrated in a three part sequence. The first of the three is when Mac physically assaults the Arab mercenary leader for taking his one and only cigarette. This incurs the consequence of persecution. When Mac escapes the camp he arrives at a saloon in a ghost town, operated by a shiftless man who constantly betrays him. Throughout the scene Mac regards the man as one not to be trusted, sometimes even being in the same room as the man when he betrays his location. But in this moment of frustration and anxiety, Mac is aware of his own involvement because of his attack on the Arab in the first sequence. Often trouble is caused and brought upon an individual for both fair and unfair reasons. Here, Mac is victim to his own decision making, and therefore can’t have high expectations of the outcome. In the last sequence Mac procures a vehicle but arrives with the expectation that he can afford something beyond what he actually has. The sobering reality is that he can only afford something that barely allows him to escape. Persecution and conflict establish Mac’s expectations of reality, showing that his actions have very real and immediate consequences.
Understanding the implications of Henson’s surrealistic constructions of Mac’s consciousness, it begs the question of the story’s purpose. Henson’s narrative is really a story about life, and the paths individuals must walk and face when formulating their own ideals and conceptions autonomously. Mac is a protagonist who is thrust into a situation that demands him to undergo a transformation from being uncertain of who he is, to eventually possessing a heightened self awareness by the end of his journey. Much of this transformation has to do with the nature of the setting.
The American Southwest has been subject of many psychological dramas and comedies like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Thelma and Louise. Also in sequential art do plots and arcs take place in the American Southwest, often in key scenes of psychological conditioning or development. This can be seen in Animal Man when Mr. Highwater and Buddy Baker travel to Arizona and take mescaline to induce a heightened state of consciousness, thereby realizing the purpose of the multiverse. In Green Lantern, it is in seclusion amidst a desert that Hal Jordan finds Abin Sur dying in his space craft, and is given the power ring. In all of this ,the American Southwest is a breeding ground for self-discovery and innovation, so it’s not surprising that Mac finds himself placed in a stereotypical Western backdrop.
In The Cube, the main protagonist spends his solitude trying to ascertain who he is at the risk of his own sanity. Throughout Mac’s quest, the collective sum of his own experiences encapsulate who he becomes at the conclusion of his journey. Being alone in a desert, he comes to grips with his limitations and must rely on others for help. He is also confronted with the scope and scale of the wilderness around him, especially in the large splash panel in the middle of the arc, where he is walking through a mesmerizing landscape coming alive in the darkness and beating with the rhythm of life. In the scene where he arrives at Henri’s, which from the outside is unassuming and mundane, Mac is confronted with a twenties-style French cigar club, an all too obvious homage to the French existentialists Sartre and Foucault. Mac’s journey through the desert is rife with imagery concerning finding one’s own identity, and is a dominant theme of Henson’s Tale of Sand.
Tale of Sand, for its brevity and characteristically brief dialogue, is a work of enormous scale and scope, and it is no wonder that directors and production companies shirked the project. It is unfortunate, but like many stories worth telling, Tale of Sand eventually rose to the surface and had its day. In some way the story seems analogous to Henson’s own life growing up in the late ’50s to early ’70s, as he waded through the mires of a progressively modernizing society. As he realized his artistic potential, transitioning from static expressions of art like painting to animation, Henson grappled with the implications of movement and sound being added to his work. From his conception of the Muppets to his more radical fantasy works, Henson was always a world builder. He looked at something and saw it come alive in his mind. Pérez’s ability to see into the mind of Henson, and build his fluid and comically dynamic portrayal of the Southwest is remarkable and intriguing. While visually, Tale of Sand has lived up to the dream of its progenitor, the soft comedic tone of the work conveys the touching and heartwarming nature of Henson, who taught us the value of dignity and moral solidarity. Mac is a person just like any other, finding his way is a confusing and awkward world with the help of unexpected strangers, and learning from his mistakes and assumptions. Henson’s memory endures through his children and countless others that he inspired through his television programs. His work is culturally transcending, globally iconographic, and artistically innovative. Surely today there is more to Henson than was ever thought possible, and all of us will be hoping for a little more of the man who gave us the gift of Kermit, the frog.