Carve-O-Lantern 2: The Expansioning


     It's October again, the leaves are changing colors, and if the latest Trader Joe's Fearless Flyer is any indication, people are really into pumpkin. Seriously, like 80% of that thing is ads for pumpkin-flavored foods. Now, this is cool with me, since I'm quite the squashophile myself. You may recall an article I wrote last year, about the release of the O.G. game-changing jack-o'-lantern carving book, Carve-O-Lantern (if you need a refresher, here's the link). Seeing as how I just scratched the surface of the Carve-O-Lantern universe in that article, it's high time I wrote a follow-up where I can really give you the inside scoop on the product line. So, uh, here is that follow-up.
     Indulge me for a moment in an extended simile: Carve-O-Lantern is like the popular trading card game Magic: The Gathering. It's true! Both are products that arrived on the scene relatively unheralded, only to become massive successes. Both are icons in their respective fields (though I will admit that the field of gaming is slightly more vast than the field of pumpkin carving), and both made a huge impression right out of the gate. Both are surprisingly expensive to collect (but what did you need TWO kidneys for, anyway?). Also similar is the fact that their initial releases, despite their successes, were merely peeks into a vast world of unlimited potential. You could only cast your Shivan Dragon so many times before you began to yearn for more, just as you could only carve Ernie and/or Bert pumpkins so many times before you began to wonder what other little orange miracles those carving tools could create. Thus, just as Magic would get expansion sets introducing new cards into the core game, so too did Carve-O-Lantern's universe expand with the addition of new pattern books. OK, so now that I've completely lost most of you, let us dig in to that expansioning of the nouveau jack-o'-lantern.
     In 1989, Carve-O-Lantern stepped their game up. Not only did they release a (mostly) new set of patterns for the Halloween season, but they made the extremely wise decision to package the carving tools pre-assembled.

     This was a pretty big deal, because the original book included a manila envelope full of parts that had to be snapped together to create the carving tools. As much fun as sawblade arts and crafts was, it was needlessly laborious, and it seemed to me that the first set of tools had less structural integrity than this new batch, probably due to their having to be snapped together like a Lego autopsy kit. Now that the blades came in one piece, they were a bit stronger and, crucially, an increasingly lazy American public no longer had to waste valuable seconds on the thankless task of saw assembly. Many huzzahs were uttered. As for the patterns, here is a photo of the sort of thing we got in those early days:

     A bit of a mixed bag here. There are a couple patterns from the original book (the cat and good ol' Mr. Lips, who was the face of the company and included in every carving kit for the first decade or so), the awesome Skull pattern, and then an assortment of odds and ends, with emphasis on the "odd." I get the seasonal cachet of the witch, and I actually really dig the Mac Tonight-esque moon face (for obvious reasons), but let's be real here: when you think of Halloween, are the first things that come to mind a cartoony little girl, a Stegosaurus and a freaking WINGED UNICORN? If so, I have some tests I would like you to participate in, for which you will be compensated the princely sum of nothing but the satisfaction of having advanced the field of psychology. Now, don't let my disbelief fool you; I love this off the wall stuff. Halloweeny or no, the winged unicorn is not just hilariously wacky, but also a reminder that what can be carved on a pumpkin is truly only limited by one's imagination. And the Stegosaurus...come on, what little boy is not going to be delighted by dinosaur pumpkins? None that I care to know, I'll tell you that much.
     In the early 90's, Carve-O-Lantern started to supplement these annual carving kits with books that were just sets of patterns; after all, did you really need to buy a fresh set of tools every year? Given how fragile they were back then, yeah, probably, but still! Here was your chance to get more patterny goodness than ever. The initial wave of pattern books released was a trilogy referred to as the Special Collection, and they certainly lived up to this moniker. First up, we have Volume 1: "More 'New Faces.'" Before you ask, no, I have no idea why "new faces" had to be put in quotes.

     Many of these patterns were submissions that pumpkin carving prodigies entered into Carve-O-Lantern's annual pumpkin carving contest. The contest still exists, but I don't believe the winning patterns are published any more, which is a shame. In recent years, despite the increase in the number of patterns released, the aesthetic of them seems to have gotten more homogenized, generally falling into a specific cartoony art style that I feel is somewhat uninspiring compared to the older patterns, when we had a veritable hive mind of jack-o'-lantern virtuosos trying to top each other every Halloween. Ah, well, c'est la vie. Back to the new faces. And new they were, in the greatest sense possible. Here we have a wonderful assortment of motifs, from the simple but striking to the absolutely insane. The best example of the latter is If Tiffany Had Used a Pumpkin, which is the pattern at the top. You can't tell from the photo, but the pattern is meant for a very large pumpkin, and wraps all the way around, simulating a Tiffany lamp. The window in the middle with the spider web? Merely one of four, each with its own distinct pattern (at least in the original design; the pattern book simplified the actual pattern a bit). When I first saw this at the tender age of ten, I was in awe. How could anyone ever have the skill, to say nothing of the patience, to successfully pull this carving off? To this day, I have no idea. As much of a fan of carving these things as I am (obviously), I tend to err on the side of patterns that are relatively quick to carve but still visually effective, which is why the Cat in the Moon pattern (which, incidentally, was originally just one of the four windows on the Tiffany pumpkin) is possibly my all-time favorite, and one that I bust out regularly. It's just so quick to carve, and it really looks nice, so it's perfect for anyone harried by the hustle and bustle of the workaday world. See?

     OK, the eyes are maybe a bit too big on this one, but you get the idea. If I had to pick an all-around top three favorite patterns (hey, there's an idea for next year!), Cat in the Moon would almost certainly be up there.
     Up next was Special Collection 2, "Glowing Faces":

     What can I say about this collection that hasn't already been said about the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? It's marvelous. An excellent variety of images and moods are represented here, and even though I'm not exactly certain how a spider qualifies as a face, I think these are great across the board. According to the credits, all these patterns were designed by James Egitto, who should give himself a hearty pat on the back for a job well done, if he's still alive. The thing is, there's not much for me to criticize here, so I don't have a ton to say about this book. It's just immaculate. I will note that the ghost pattern included here, named Spooook, is an absolute all-time great and probably another of my top three favorite patterns. It is one of very few patterns from this era that still see print from time to time to this day, as a bonus pattern for Michael's customers or something like that. True to his spectral nature, Spooook (I keep having to double-check the amount of o's in the name) refuses to die.
     Rounding out the trilogy was Special Collection 3, "Carving for Kids."

     Err, never mind what I said earlier about not being able to carve Ernie and Bert forever. Actually, this was the last time the sexually ambiguous duo would see print, as any further releases (including an eventual reprint of this one with a slightly different name and pattern set) would omit then. Can't be paying them Jim Henson licensing fees forever, son! Anyway, redundancy aside (and, to be fair, the Bert & Ernie present here are somewhat altered from their previous incarnation in the original pattern book), this is a solid little set that accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do. I mean, look at what we have here: Muppets? Teddy bears? A fire-breathing dragon? Two Tyrannosaurus Rex patterns, including one where a T-Rex is DRESSED UP LIKE A WITCH AND TRICK-OR-TREATING? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! See, the point here is not how accurately these patterns reflect the tropes of Halloween. The point is how appealing these patterns are to children, and though I may be out of touch with today's youth and their Angry Birds and Fruit Ninjas and such, I can confidently say that nearly any child of the late 80s/early 90s would have been elated to carve at least a couple of patterns from this juvenile smörgåsbord. In the parlance of the time, "Carving for Kids" was simply radical. Nay, tubular.
     The final pattern book I'd like to showcase here was not part of the Special Collection, despite being released right around the same time. Here it is:

     Pretty exciting name, huh? "Pumpkin Carving Patterns." I wonder how many sleepless nights they toiled away before they came up with that one. As for the patterns themselves...I dunno. A few of them are really cool, like Shriek (which is on loan from the "Glowing Faces" collection), the Grim Reaper, and the Witch's Brew one at the bottom. The others...they're fine, I guess. The lack of punctuation on the Boo Ghost's word balloon irks me, the Thanksgiving Turkey is fine but should really be a bonus pattern or something, the two cats have been done better elsewhere, and the Happy Halloween Ghost kind of looks like a jack-o'-lantern that has already started to rot, making the first portion of the ghost's declaration droop down into his smilin' face. Overall, it's an above-average collection, and I certainly find it preferable to most of the pattern books that come out these days, but in the wake of the nearly impeccable Special Collections, it's not hard to see how this one was denied the superlative designation.
     Not long after these books were released, the Carve-O-Lantern brand ceased to exist, morphing into Pumpkin Masters. The Special Collection books were re-released featuring new covers to reflect the updated branding, with a few patterns swapped out here and there. Here is the reprint of the "New Faces" collection, where as you can see, Frankenstein's Monster has been replaced with the Skull:

     The Pumpkin Masters years are where things really started to go nuts in terms of pattern books, carving kit varieties and carving accessories like the Pumpkin Painting Kit and String Art Pumpkins. I could go on all night about this stuff. Instead, I will leave you to reflect upon these ghosts of jack-o'-lanterns past, because I just got a copy of the incredibly rare 2006 Pumpkin Masters Cat Lover's Carving Kit in the mail and it demands my attention. Have a wonderful October!

     Joey Marsilio trick or treats in his own way, by going from computer to computer, asking everyone to buy copies of his book Henry Garrison: St. Dante's Savior. It's not only entertaining, but also guaranteed not to promote tooth decay!


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