How much do we know about Jim Henson’s career? We’ve watched all the documentaries and read everything we can about the guy, but in recent years we’ve gotten more access than ever to his creative process. I’m a big fan of the Jim Henson Company’s “Jim’s Red Book” blog, which is maintained by the Henson Company archivist Karen Falk, and provides regular peeks into Jim Henson’s personal journal. Now Falk has put together a book called Imagination Illustrated: The Jim Henson Journal. My first impression of the new book was pretty much, “Neat, it’s a cute little book version of the Red Book blog.” But when I actually picked up the book and opened it, my second impression was more like, “Whoa… There sure is a lot of stuff in this book.”

Like the blog, the book is based around a journal that Jim kept to keep a record of what he did and when. Remarkably, Jim maintained the journal in the exact same red notebook from 1965 to 1988. The format of the Red Book blog is to feature an entry from Jim’s journal from the current day’s date in history — so if it’s October 18th, the Red Book tells us that on October 18, 1975, the Muppets were on the second episode of Saturday Night Live.  But this book needed to do something different to distinguish itself from the existing blog, so Imagination Illustrated takes the journal entries with the most significance to Jim’s creative journey and presents them all in chronological order.

The result is a fascinating history book with non-stop cool pictures.  It makes for a great coffee table book, in that your friend or your mom could open it to any random page and find something interesting to look at. But Muppet fans will want to read it all the way through from beginning to end. Having read the book, I feel like I have a much greater understanding of how Jim’s life changed as the Muppets got bigger and bigger, and how it must have felt for him to experience it all.

As you read through the book, which is divided into sections corresponding with eras of Henson’s career, you get Jim’s journal entries reproduced in his own handwriting, along with information about the thing he was writing about. Then the rest of the page is full of the aforementioned stuff — sketches, storyboards, animation cels, publicity photos, movie premiere invitations, and a million other things — all of which takes you from the Sam and Friends days to the worldwide mega-success of The Muppet Show and beyond.

Imagination Illustrated is comparable to a few things we’ve seen before, but it’s fresh and exciting and colorful enough to be completely its own thing. We’ve had the great book Jim Henson: The Works for almost 20 years now, and the Jim Henson’s Fantastic World museum exhibition was a lovely multi-sensory experience.  But so much more material has been discovered in the archives since The Works, and this book goes into greater detail on several topics first covered in that one (like Jim’s unrealized nightclub project Cyclia — speaking of which, when is some entrepreneur going to see an opportunity and make that thing a reality?). And you can’t put a museum exhibition on your shelf where you can look at it any time.

I continue to be amazed that there’s so much stuff from Henson history that we haven’t seen or heard of before, and this book has some doozies. Did you know there was discussion of Mr. Snuffleupagus having a little brother with only two legs?  I’m pretty glad they abandoned that idea. Did you know Jim was responsible for the advertising campaign for one of the first-ever home video formats? The book includes a storyboard for a promotional film, and it’s kind of amazing to think that there was a time when people had to have home video explained to them… and that Jim Henson was the guy hired to do it:

(Click to make it bigger)

Sometimes I wonder what Jim was doing to keep his company going in all the time between Sam and Friends and Sesame Street. This book answered that question, and the answer is: “He did A LOT.” Other times I wonder how Jim ever found the time for the countless projects he worked on from The Muppet Show era until his death.  I got an answer to that question here too, and the answer is: “Man, he did so much more than you even knew he did.” Reading through each month of each year, I was amazed at how close together the journal entries are. It’s like, one day he’s directing a Fraggle Rock in Canada and then a few days later he’s working on Labyrinth and then a few days after that he’s shooting a TV special or something, and somehow he still managed to take his family on awesome vacations.  If I didn’t like the guy so much, this book would cause me to resent him for making me feel lazy.

Karen Falk has done great things with bringing treasures from the Henson archives to the fans, and in Imagination Illustrated she’s created a book that would be a great gift for Muppet fans on every end of the spectrum, from the civilians who happen to notice it at a bookstore because Kermit’s on the cover, to the geeks who can name all of the other Sam and Friends characters with him. If you don’t have the book yet, why not ask for it for Christmas? If you already have it, why not buy a copy for every single one of your friends and relatives?

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by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com

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