Contrary to my expectations, I did wind up watching most of the first part of PBS' two-part American Experience extravaganza on Walt Disney—at my wife's insistence, since I make two very brief appearances in it. As I first feared and then expected, it was awful. Sloppy, distorted, inaccurate—all of those adjectives could be called into play, with no fear of contradiction from me. Some aspects of the show, like Ron Suskind's prominent role, were simply bizarre. An occasional bright spot, like a bit of unfamiliar archival film, could not come close to making up for the show's shortcomings. I didn't see the last two hours, which may have been a little better. For full evaluations of the show by writers more knowledgeable about Walt Disney, and sympathetic to him, than American Experience's producers, I can recommend posts by Jim Korkis and Todd Pierce.
I sat for another TV interview ten days ago, in New York—I flew up for the day from Washington, where Phyllis and I were house-sitting for our former next-door neighbors—and I thought it went better than my PBS ordeal. (For one thing, my stomach was much more cooperative.) But as with PBS, I came away thinking that most and maybe all of what I said was destined for the trash.
When I was conducting interviews myself, hundreds of them, for my books and Nation's Business magazine, I always tried to prepare thoroughly, so that I had a lot of questions in mind, and I tried to make the tape recorder as inconspicuous as possible during the interview (I've never interviewed anyone on camera). A good interview, to my mind, was like an extended conversation whose shape was not foreordained, and that just happened to yield words suitable for publication. In my experience, TV people usually approach interviews very differently: they come into an interview with a story line already firmly established, so that your job, if you're the person being interviewed, becomes to provide pithy comments that will amplify what the producers think they already know. Add the bright lights and cables and technicians that TV requires, and when you're being interviewed you can feel like a gangster getting the third degree in an old movie. It's all a matter of money, of course; those machines and those people cost a lot of it, so for a TV producer minimizing uncertainty easily trumps coddling superannuated authors.
TV interviews are made to order for someone like Neal Gabler, who is adept at spotting opportunities to serve up pungent morsels about, say, the darkness in Walt Disney's soul. If, however, in responding to questions you tend to address directly what you think are misconceptions or inaccuracies, you create problems for the producers that they are likely to resolve by eliminating you from the show. In my latest interview, I was so impolitic as to suggest, among other things, that Elias Disney was not an ogre, that the Disney studio was not in financial distress in the 1930s, and that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was not a daring gamble that many people believed would fail.
On the latter point, the interviewer rather triumphantly pointed out that Walt and Roy had put up their library of cartoons as collateral when they borrowed hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Bank of America to finish Snow White. Didn't that prove something? I was too flummoxed by the question to answer adequately, but of course that transaction proved, if anything, that the bank had a lot of confidence in Walt and in the value of his cartoons, the older shorts and the new feature alike. And there was certainly nothing strange about a bank's wanting collateral for a large loan.
I'll hope for the best from the new show (whose particulars may not have been announced yet, so I won't announce them here). What I won't expect is to see or hear much of myself.
That misbegotten PBS show "Walt Disney" has on its website a list of "related books and websites." It's a rather peculiar list that includes only one book by John Canemaker (and that one not directly concerned with Disney) and only one by J.B. Kaufman. My first thought when I skimmed the list was that "authorized" books like Canemaker's Two Guys Named Joe (2010) and Kaufman's South of the Border with Disney (2009) had been excluded because of their Disney affiliation, but that's not the case. The list includes a number of such books, some of them manifestly inferior to excluded Canemaker and Kaufman titles. So who knows what eccentric or peevish principles of selection were at work.
I wrote a few years ago, in a review I titled "The Approved Narrative," about the constraints under which the authors of Disney-authorized (and, increasingly, Disney-published) books now operate, and about how a few authors, Canemaker and Kaufman chief among them, have managed to produce estimable work despite those constraints—and, it must be added, despite limited interest among most reviewers and book buyers outside the claustrophobic world of Disney fans. It's no wonder that so many official Disney books simply recycle the same facts and illustrations that previous authors have used, and it's a cause for rejoicing when a few authors break free of those constraints,discovering and publishing neglected artwork and performing original research that refreshes our awareness of what we may have thought was overly familiar. It's wonderful to be reminded of just how extraordinary Walt Disney's studio was in its heyday.
Three new (or in one case, recent) books deserve extended reviews that I can't give them yet—I've been spending too much time doing other things, like preparing interviews for publication here—but that's no reason not to buy them as quickly as you can. Thanks to their authors' credentials and the richness of their illustrations, all these books are self-recommending.
At the top of my list is Didier Ghez's They Drew as They Pleased: The Hidden Art of Disney's Golden Age (Chronicle), a gorgeous book that reproduces hundreds of pieces of concept art from the 1930s by Albert Hurter, Gustaf Tenggren, Ferdinand Horvath, and Bianca Majolie. I've done no more yet than skim the text, but Didier's record for comprehensiveness and accuracy, established beyond cavil in Disney's Grand Tour (2014), his account of Walt and Roy's 1935 visit to Europe, appears to be completely intact. The interesting question is how his new book measures up against Canemaker's Before the Animation Begins (1996), which covers much of the same ground, and I can't answer that with any confidence yet. My best guess is that anyone with a serious interest in the Disney studio's history will want both books, and will be very satisfied with both purchases.
My one reservation, which I've voiced about some of Canemaker's books, is that I'm not sure a biographical approach is always the most productive when dealing with a collaborative medium like animation. But I'm open to persuasion, and looking forward to spending much more time with Didier's book than I've been able to so far.
J.B. Kaufman's Pinocchio: The Making of the Disney Epic (Walt Disney Family Foundation) is devoted not to a group of artists, but to a single film, as with his The Fairest One of All: The Making of Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (2012). Like the earlier book, Pinocchio is richly illustrated, but considering how much artwork from Pinocchio has already seen print, the greatest weight of interest falls necessarily on the text. I read the book in manuscript a few years ago and found very little to complain about. In Pinocchio, as always, Kaufman is a researcher non pareil, piecing together the story of the film's making from countless bits of information in the Walt Disney Archives, Disney's Animation Research Library, and many other sources. A more complete and accurate account of Pinocchio's production is impossible to imagine.
My reservations go less to Kaufman's performance than to the film itself. As I've argued in my own Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, Pinocchio is problematic in a number of crucial areas, especially in its handling of the title character. Unless Kaufman revised his manuscript after I read it—and I don't think he made any significant changes—he didn't address any of my concerns. That's his author's prerogative, and the book remains excellent on its own terms. I can't help but regret, though, that it was published not by an "outside" company, like Chronicle Books, the publisher of Didier Ghez's book, but by the publishing arm of the Walt Disney Family Foundation. That affiliation has probably ruled out very much serious attention outside the Disney biosphere.
Now we need a full-scale examination of Fantasia, preferably by John Canemaker. That's not to say Kaufman wouldn't do an excellent job, only that Canemaker's devotion to the film, and his own strengths as a researcher and author, make him the ideal choice to write a Fantasia book that would supplant John Culhane's unsatisfactory effort from 1988. In the meantime, I still need to finish reading Canemaker's most recent and possibly most important book, The Lost Notebook: Herman Schultheis and the Secrets of Walt Disney's Movie Magic (2014). With any luck, I'll have all three of these important new books read and reviewed within the next few months.
Not that I think that anyone is waiting desperately to learn what I think of them. Anyone besides me, that is. I often don't know what I think about a book or a film until I've reduced my thoughts to words, and that will certainly be the case here. I'm looking forward to reading my own reviews.
I met Jay Ward twice, both times at the Ward studio on Sunset Boulevard. Both times, I was there to interview Lew Keller, and the studio was, as best I recall, empty except for Jay and Lew. (Jay's wife Billie was still
running Dudley Do-Right's Emporium, which sold licensed merchandise with the Ward characters next door.) The first meeting was in December 1986, and I remember Jay coming into the room where Lew and I were sitting, seeing that an interview was in progress, and beating a very hasty retreat. He was highly allergic to interviews, even, I suppose, other people's.
That interview with Lew Keller, about his studio work before he went with Ward, was a disaster. Electrical interference of some kind filled most of the tape. I got together with Lew again two and a half years later, in 1989, again at the Ward studio, although we adjourned to a coffee shop across the street to reduce the risk of electrical problems. I spoke with Jay again, this time making of a point of saying to him, as I stuck my head in his office, that I'd seen Lloyd Turner in Oregon just a couple of weeks before. This time, Jay smiled and didn't bolt from his desk, and we talked briefly about Turner, whom we both liked very much, before I returned to Lew.
I thought about those visits to the Ward studio when I first saw Darrell Van Citters' beautiful book, The Art of Jay Ward Productions (Oxberry Press, 2013). That book is filled with model sheets and other drawings that I'm sure I saw as yellowed photocopies on the studio's walls. As Darrell says, those drawings are greatly superior to what wound up on the screen, after the cartoons were animated in Mexico. I think I'd say that thanks to those model sheets and such, Darrell's book is not just more pleasing to look at than the cartoons, but funnier, too. I loved the Ward cartoons when both they and I were new, decades ago, but when I've seen them again more recently, I've been disappointed.
Probably they're a little disappointed in me, too.
If you haven't shared my disappointment, you should seek out this excellent book, and, while you're at it, Keith Scott's classic history of the Ward studio, The Moose That Roared (2001). I haven't lined up the two books for close comparison of their accounts of Ward history—I'm just not that interested in the Ward cartoons—but I'm pretty sure they're complementary. Anyone who enjoys the Ward cartoons as much as I used to should probably have both.
I've never wanted to beg for favorable reviews on amazon.com, but saddled as I am with publishers who recoil at the thought of promoting or selling my books, I don't think I have much choice. (As one example, The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney has been "temporarily out of stock" for weeks, coincidentally since just about the time I alerted my editor that I would make a cameo appearance on PBS's "Walt Disney.")
So, if you've enjoyed Funnybooks or The Animated Man or Hollywood Cartoons, and you feel the urge to tell the world about it through a comment on amazon, please do so. I would truly appreciate it.
That's all for the next few weeks. See you in early October, probably.
Here's a link to a review I think you can trust. Thank you, G. Michael Dobbs, for giving me back the four hours of my life I might otherwise have spent watching this blighted documentary. Ken Burns, where were you when we needed you?
I'm sure everyone who visits this site is aware by now that PBS' American Experience will devote four hours to a biography of Walt Disney, spread across two nights, September 14 and 15. I was interviewed for the show, which is titled simply "Walt Disney," early last year in Boston. I haven't seen "Walt Disney," but the producers say that I'll be in the September 14 installment—very briefly, I gather, from what I've been told by a person who has seen the whole thing. I was unwell the morning I was interviewed, thanks to something I ate the previous evening, and if the recorded interview betrayed my unease, that would have been reason enough to minimize my contribution.
Other considerations may also have been at work. The promotional clips that have turned up on Facebook and American Experience's website, totaling perhaps twenty minutes so far—that is, a fair sampling of the whole show, especially since the idea must have been to make it seem as attractive as possible—have been disappointing, to say the least. My fellow interviewees seem to have included a surfeit of fatuous academics, including at least one Marxist crank. It was understandably hard, almost fifty years after Walt's death, to round up a few people who knew him personally, but, rather than rely on archival footage of important Disney employees and friends, the show offers new interviews not just with reliable sources like Floyd Norman and Richard Sherman but also with the barely marginal, like Ruthie Tompson and Bob Givens.
To judge from the clips, "Walt Disney" will also serve up more than enough Neal Gabler and his factitious view that Walt was a strange man with "darkness" at his core. Gabler is a skilled TV performer, chipper as a chipmunk—he has put to good use his experience as the liberal punching bag on a Fox News show—and it's no wonder that the American Experience people found him an attractive interview subject. It's too bad that so much of what he writes and says is simply wrong.
I don't remember in any detail what I said in my own interview, but I can't imagine that it fit very snugly with what people like Gabler had to say. I'm sure, for one thing, that I rejected the popular view that Walt's father, Elias, was a brutal ogre. That may be one big reason I wound up on the cutting-room floor. No doubt I departed from orthodoxy in other ways.
I'll record both installments of "Walt Disney," but as it happens I have conflicts that will prevent me from watching "live." Phyllis and I will leave for our old home town of Alexandria, Virginia, on September 16, and we won't be home for much of the following few weeks, so I have no idea when I'll see "Walt Disney," or if I'll see the show at all. I've watched myself on TV before, so that's no lure—quite the opposite—and certainly I can't get excited about seeing more of Gabler. Not watching the show is more attractive the more I think about it.
The American Experience website speaks of gaining "unprecedented access to the Disney archives," and the show's executive producer, Mark Samels, says that PBS insisted on, and got, complete editorial control. I thought all that sounded familiar, and sure enough, when I pulled Gabler's Walt Disney off the shelf, I found claims of exactly the same sort. "Gabler is the first writer to be given complete access to the Disney archives," the dust jacket announces, and in his acknowledgments Gabler thanks the Disney executive Howard Green for sparing him from having "to submit the manuscript to the studio for approval. ... I did not seek nor did I receive a company imprimatur." In both cases, as we know for certain with Gabler's book and as seems likely with the PBS show, this hands-off posture effectively endorsed a badly distorted portrait of Walt.
That's not to say that either Gabler or PBS should have been locked out of those fabled Disney archives, only that other independent writers and filmmakers should have been allowed in, as I was back in the 1990s. There's something odd about a situation in which people like Gabler and the PBS producers—that is, people with an entirely predictable skepticism about Walt Disney and his creations—are welcomed into the company's treasure rooms, while people who have written sympathetically and accurately about Walt are regarded with suspicion and hostility, and made to pay handsomely for what little help they get. One might almost think that the current Disney management is happy to see Walt denigrated by respectable sources like PBS, because such criticism discourages invidious comparisons with his successors. A sad thought, but draw your own conclusions.
Nine years ago, I posted ten pages of drafts—the scene-by-scene records of who animated what—for cartoon portions of the Disney feature Song of the South, with a promise to post more later. I wondered at the time how much interest there was in such things, although my own interest has always been high. Back in the 1990s, I waded through many hundreds of draft pages at the Disney Archives, before outside researchers were banned, and I've always found drafts highly illuminating, not just about who animated what but about how cartoon producers and directors marshaled their talent.
My skepticism about other people's level of interest in drafts seemed to be justified by the silence that greeted my publication of the Song of the South drafts, but in the last few years I've had a trickle of inquiries about when I'd post more of the drafts, and other people have posted other drafts on their own websites, attracting at least a modest response. Hans Perk has been far and away the most prolific, posting many Disney drafts, and Devon Baxter, at Jerry Beck's Cartoon Research site, has been posting drafts for short cartoons from many differerent studios and directors, most recently—and most intriguingly—the draft for The Night Watchman, the first cartoon Chuck Jones directed at the Schlesinger studio.
I've had some other demands on my time recently, and so I'm indebted to Garry Apgar for researching and writing the following item, a sequel to my own August 6 post about Jim Bodrero's work as an illustrator.There's a good book waiting to be written (and heavily illustrated) about the animation people who illustrated books in the early years of the twentieth century. Grim Natwick comes instantly to mind, and there were others.
Long Ride to Granada (1965) was not the only book involving horses illustrated by James S. Bodrero. In 1927 he provided artwork for the second edition of the memoirs of one Major Horace Bell, first published in Los Angeles in 1881. Bell (1830-1918), a colorful figure in California history, came west during the Gold Rush in 1850. His Reminiscences of a Ranger or Early Times in Southern California was dedicated to “the few surviving members of the Los Angeles Rangers, and the memory of those who have answered to the last roll-call.”
I can find no images online from the edition illustrated by Bodrero, but here are the cover and title page of the 1881 edition at the Bancroft Library, Berkeley:
For a readable copy of the 1881 edition in the Stanford library, click here.
Also in 1927, Bodrero contributed woodcut illustrations to a second Old West-themed book, The Treasure Chest of the Medranos, by Elizabeth Howard Atkins, first published in the monthly children’s magazine, St. Nicholas, in serial form (Dec. 1919–March 1920), with drawings by W. M. Berger. The volume Bodrero illustrated was published in Santa Barbara by Wallace Hebberd. The vignette below was embossed into the cover, beneath the dust jacket reproduced below right. It’s not hard to imagine Walt Disney, the future builder of Frontierland, and a man with a certain affinity for horses as well, finding this sort of thing fascinating.
This CD-ROM, Walt Disney: An Intimate History of the Man and His Magic, was published in 1998, for Windows 95 computers. Try installing and playing it on a Windows 7 computer, as I did this week, and you will quickly find yourself up against compatibility obtacles. I bought the CD-ROM new and used it fitfully for a few years, but it may have been ten years since I last took it out of the case. When I tried to install it on my current computer, Windows 7 was not in the least cooperative, even when I turned to the troubleshooting tools that are supposed to let you bridge the enormous gaps that the speed of technological change opens up.
So: has anyone else encountered this problem and found a solution? It's not that this CD-ROM is an indispensable document, or at least not so far as I can recall, but there is stuff on it that I'd like to revisit for one reason or another.
[A September 4, 2015, update. Despite the generous assistance and best efforts of Thad Komorowski and Hans Perk, I haven't been able to come close to replicating how the CD-ROM originally functioned, and I can't persuade myself that it's worth the trouble to keep pushing ahead. Thanks to Thad, I have been able to listen to some of the audio, including an introduction by Diane Disney Miller, recorded almost twenty years ago, in which she speculates that her father would have loved the new computer technology—but maybe not, I feel obliged to add, if he'd known that the fruits of that technology, like his daughter's CD-ROM, would so quickly become obsolete.]
When I learned of John Culhane's death last month, I pulled out my file of correspondence with John to refresh my memory of just how much, or how little, we had been in touch. Our correspondence lasted only about a year; John initiated it in the fall of 1970, when as a Newsweek editor he asked me for help with a cover story on nostalgia, timed for Christmas. I lent him a great pile of stuff, including the complete run of Funnyworld and a number of other fan magazines. (This was, remember, long before the internet and email and other much easier ways to share information.) John ended our correspondence a year later by not replying to the letters I'd sent after I last heard from him.
John was aware by then of the hostile response, from Chuck Jones especially, to Funnyworld Nos. 12 and 13, and even though he'd praised the magazine highly, I've always thought it likely that he decided he couldn't afford to be seen in my company.
But, in the meantime, I received a few lively, funny letters like the one I've reproduced here (and that I published in part in Funnyworld No. 14). His optimism about Disney's misbegotten Robin Hood is easy for me to forgive; when I got his letter, I had just published in Funnyworld No. 13 my admiring piece about (gulp!) The Aristocats.
When I re-read John's letters, I realized that I'd not seen any mention in the obituaries of the major project that was occupying his attention in 1971. That was the book he refers to as "the history" in this letter, and that was eventually announced as Magic Mirror: The First World History of the Animated Film. That ambitiously titled book was real enough that I got a request from the book's packager in 1972, eight months after I last heard from John, to approve the use of an illustration I'd published in Funnyworld. I agreed, although not very graciously, since I was irked by what I regarded as John's snub.
There was no question then of our being in any sense competitors, since it was not until the spring of 1973 that I signed a contract with Oxford University Press to write the book that was published decades later as Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age. I'd already sent John transcripts of some of my interviews for his use in writing his own book.
In 1974, when I'd heard nothing more about Magic Mirror, I wrote to the publisher, Viking Press. I was told: "The book is in preparation but has not yet been scheduled." The book was still "upcoming" in February 1975, when Daily Variety mentioned it in a story announcing that John had been signed to write a feature film called The New Little Rascals. But that was the end, for reasons that have never been clear.
John turned up in Washington, D.C., a few times after Phyllis and I moved there in 1975; he was the host at events like a Kennedy Center tribute to his cousin Shamus. But I didn't meet John in person until 1978, at a black-tie dinner celebrating the opening of the Library of Congress' exhibit on Disney animation, "Building a Better Mouse." I'm sure we exchanged pleasantries, but I don't recall a word of our conversation.
I was the exhibit's curator, and John was there as—what? A representative of Walt Disney Productions, I think, but his exact relationship with Disney was puzzling to me then, and has remained so. He wasn't a full-time Disney employee, or so I assume, since I'd see references to other jobs he held, like those low-paying adjunct professorships that are a curse of the academic world. But he always seemed to be available when Disney needed an MC or a cheerleader at a Disney-sponsored, animation-related event.
Cartoon Brew recently posted video footage from one such occasion, when John accompanied several Disney employees (Woolie Reitherman, John Lasseter, Tom Wilhite) on a tour of forty campuses that was intended to drum up interest in Disney animation among presumably skeptical college kids. (I attended the session at George Washington University on April 10, 1981.) John wrote for the New York Times, freelance pieces on Disney subjects that I don't think ever acknowledged his close connection with corporate Disney. He wrote a few books, too, also on Disney subjects, but nothing remotely as ambitious as his abandoned history. When Abrams published his book on Fantasia, my first thought when I read it was to regret that John Canemaker hadn't written it.
I doubt very much that Canemaker would have let slip into print such absurdities as the notion that Walt Disney tailored his version of "The Rite of Spring" to anticipate objections from religious fundamentalists.
It was John Culhane's enthusiasm for Disney animation, and especially for the work of the Nine Old Men, and not his scrupulousness as a historian, that recommended him to the company for the roles he played. That enthusiasm was undoubtedly genuine, but in later years it got to seem a little, well, stylized.
The verbosity increased, as did the extravagance of his claims, especially on Walt's behalf. I suspect Magic Mirror, had it ever been completed, would have suffered from some of the same defects, but that doesn't mean John didn't have the makings of a good book at his disposal. When still in his teens, he spent an afternoon with Walt Disney at his home; he knew Bill Tytla and the Nine Old Men and many other famous animation people, possibly better than any other writer. Just how well he knew them, we could have learned if he had set out to write not a history, but a memoir as funny and vital as his letters.
Of the many first-person accounts by veterans of Hollywood animation's "golden age," especially at the Disney studio, few have what I'd call a distinctly personal flavor. It's most common for such books to present themselves as histories, or as objective how-to manuals. Everything interesting about Shamus Culhane's Talking Animals and Other People is autobiographical, but it's cloaked in borrowed historical garb, no doubt because either author or publisher thought that a straightforward memoir would not sell (and they may have been right). A few first-person accounts, like Chuck Jones's Chuck Amuck, are personal but hopelessly self-serving.
One striking exception to the general lack of personality is James Bodrero's Long Ride to Granada (Reynal, 1965), which I read for the first time recently. It's out of print, but easily located online. I've never been much interested in travel literature—I've read nothing by the likes of Patrick Leigh Fermor—but I found Bodrero's book charming, and that's not because his account of a small group's horseback ride across southern Spain has any Disney content. It has none, unless you include a note on the book jacket acknowledging that he worked for Disney for eight years, from 1938 to 1946, on such films as Fantasia and Saludos Amigos.
Bodrero was a member of Joe Grant's model department, and you can find his pastel sketches for such segments as the Pastoral Symphony in books like Finch's Art of Walt Disney and Canemaker's Paper Dreams. Lovely stuff, but nightmarishly difficult, seventy years ago, to translate into animated films. It was drawings like Bodrero's that Frank Thomas had in mind when he complained that the artists in the model department "could sit and whistle and make a pretty little thing without much effort" while the Disney animators struggled to meet Walt's increasingly severe demands. Long Ride offers perhaps two dozen Bodrero ilustrations—I haven't counted them—but in brush and ink.
There is in Bodrero's book, by way of compensation for the lack of studio anecdotes, a strong sense of what he was like. He was cosmopolitan, born in Belgium to an American mother and a father who was a career officer in the Italian army. As a boy he attended boarding schools in Europe and spent summers in Hawaii on his maternal grandparents' sugar plantation. His first wife, Eleanor, was the granddaughter of Cornelius Cole, a U.S. senator from California (the animator Corny Cole was Bodrero's nephew by marriage). Bodrero's background was patrician; what defined him was not so much money as ease in moving among people with wealth and social standing. He was "a very suave guy," as Homer Brightman put it, who knew and socialized with very famous people.
"Suave" fits Long Ride to Granada, not least because there are so few traces in it of the dictatorship that still ruled Spain, until Francisco Franco died in 1975. Policemen show up on the trail a couple of times, checking identity papers, and Bodrero remarks on a village's destruction during the war, but for the most part he depicts rural Andalusia as a tranquil land, populated by happy peasants. And maybe it was, in 1965, although it's in the nature of dictatorships to enforce tranquility and happiness. There is in Bodrero's book the sense that he and his comrades traveled in a sort of bubble, insulated to a large extent from everyday Spain by nationality, social position, and, of course, money. At the time the book was published, according to the jacket copy, Bodrero and his second wife, Geraldine (he remarried after Eleanor's death), spent half the year in San Francisco, and the other half on their farm on the Costa del Sol.
So, it may be impossible to read Long Ride without suppressing a little skepticism; but if, like me, you've aways enjoyed the company of old Disney hands, Bodrero's book is now the best way to get to know him. I'm glad to have made his acquaintance.
Milt Gray's interview with Bodrero about his work at Disney, recorded as part of my research for Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, is at this link.
Wilfred Jackson (center) confers with the animator Bill Tytla (left) and the musician Frank Churchill on the timing of animation for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in this 1937 photo. Courtesy of Wilfred Jackson.
Interviews: Wilfred Jackson (1973)
I interviewed Wilfred Jackson, one of Walt Disney's most important directors, at length on two occasions, in 1973 and 1976. The first of those two interviews is at this link. The second interview will follow after I've recuperated from this one. Transcribing interviews—I transcribed both of these decades ago—is no fun, but scanning the typescripts and preparing them for publication is even less fun, if possible. The interviews themselves are the saving grace, especially in this case. Jackson was a wonderful interview subject (and a wonderful correspondent, to boot), as I think you'll agree after reading this interview.
Late in the interview you'll find five photos of Jackson in poses used by Bill Tytla in his animation of the demon in "Night on Bald Mountain." Ideally, I'd have matched those poses with frame grabs from Fantasia, but I didn't, for reasons suggested in the previous paragraph. If anyone else wants to take a stab at it, please be my guest.
[An August 1, 2015, update: My nefarious scheme has worked, and Mark Mayerson has already accepted my challenge. You can go directly to his frame grabs by clicking on this link.]
James Stanley, son of the masterful writer of the Little Lulu comic book, accepted on the late John Stanley's behalf the Bill Finger award, given each year at Comic-Con to two outstanding comic-book writers, one living and one deceased. To Jim Stanley's right is Mark Evanier, himself a prolific writer for comics and animation, who presented the awards.
Phyllis and I returned a few days ago from a driving trip of more than two weeks on the West Coast, from north of Seattle to San Diego. Our original motive for the trip had no comics/animation
content. We wanted to see an old friend who was seriously ill, at his home near Seattle, although, sadly,
as things worked out we visited his widow instead of him. But as we headed south, bypassing both San Francisco and Los Angeles, reminders of my twin obsessions kept popping up.
That first happened at Seattle Center, where we visited the EMP Museum, founded by Paul Allen, Bill Gates' original partner in Microsoft. EMP—the initials originally stood for Experience Music Project—is a rock-and-roll museum in a Frank Gehry-designed building that evokes a guitar; it's a bit ho-hum, perhaps, if you've seen the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. The real attraction for me was a traveling Smithsonian Institution exhibit, "What's Up, Doc? The Animation Art of Chuck Jones."
It's a classy, well-organized exhibit, with dozens of pieces of original art and twenty-three full-length cartoons screening, some of them as wall projections in a dark room where you can actually watch them in reasonable comfort.
The cartoons are mostly wonderful, of course, and if there's any reason to hedge on a full-blown endorsement, it's because the exhibit is so emphatically a Chuck Jones exhibit, a one-man show with barely perceptible nods to his colleagues and collaborators. Only Maurice Noble gets more than minimal attention, and some important people, like Carl Stalling, get little or none. Most astonishing, unless I read right over it, there is no mention of Mel Blanc at all.
That the exhibit should be skewed so much toward Chuck himself was inevitable, probably; the credits for the exhibition are heavy with Jones-related people and organizations, in addition to the inevitable Warner Bros. contingent. (I'm on the list, too, because I provided a couple of photos.)
At Ashland, Oregon, we saw two excellent performances (of Guys and Dolls and Much Ado About Nothing) by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and then headed to Sacramento,
where the highlight was the wonderful California State Railroad Museum. Disney associations were easy to find there, of course—I particularly enjoyed coming across a locomotive that Walt and Ward Kimball undoubtedly saw at the 1948 railroad fair in Chicago—but I thought of Carl Barks, too, when I saw a refrigerator car of the kind he repaired at Roseville, California, in the 1920s, when he was a manual laborer trying to establish himself as a cartoonist.
After making our way south on the superlatively scenic coastal highway, Route 1, we spent several days in Santa Barbara. It was there that we saw our only movie of the trip, Pixar's Inside Out. I was struck by how flat the film seemed for the first twenty minutes or so, with no audible response from the audience to anything on the screen. Pixar knows how to take up the slack in its stories with expert tugs on the heartstrings, though, and such was the case here. I can't remember now exactly at which points the film pushed my buttons and undoubtedly those of almost everyone else in the audience, but I'm sure appeals to family feeling were involved (I do remember the shameless plea on the end titles that the filmmakers' children not grow up).
Still, I couldn't get past the film's governing conceit, that the personified emotions inside eleven-year-old Riley's head were somehow distinct from Riley herself. Who, or what, is Riley, if the emotions governing her life are not central to her being? To descend to a lower metaphysical plane, or maybe just call the story's craftsmanship into question, it seems to me that Inside Out's personified emotions, to be credible as such, would have to be one-dimensional—that is, nothing but fearful or angry or whatever—whereas most of them are not. Joy is so much more than joyful, especially as voiced by Amy Poehler, that she's really the story's protagonist, with a much broader emotional range than Riley herself. The girl is little more than a puppet, a sort of latterday Pinocchio, perhaps, if I might invoke another problematic Disney feature.
We drove from Santa Barbara to La Jolla by way of Claremont, where I made a brief visit to the Scripps College Library to skim the papers of Phil Dike, the artist who acted as a screener of talent, among other things, at the Disney studio in the 1930s. From our base in La Jolla (the closest lodgings we could find to the San Diego Convention Center), we drove into San Diego on two days to visit the 2015 edition of Comic-Con International. I can think of no better way to describe my response to it than to quote from A. O. Scott's excellent piece about the con in the New York Times:
A critic at Comic-Con International feels less like a fish out of water than like an excluded middleman. The local currency is not skepticism but enthusiasm, and though there is plenty of room in the cavernous halls of the convention center for disappointment and disagreement, irony is thoroughly banished. “Thank you all for being so amazing,” a woman said to a panel of television actors during a Q. and A. session, and the questions usually rise to about that level of toughness. The crowds gather under the signs of sincerity and celebration. Who needs critics to spoil the fun? Why would you walk through the Southern California summer sun in armor and body paint, or roast slowly on the grass while waiting to see a movie trailer, unless you really meant it?
Comic-Con is an event where tens of thousands of people spend millions of dollars to stand in line for hours or even days, not to see a performance, but to be exhorted to spend yet more money to enrich the manufacturers of shallow, high-gloss entertainments. Anyone who asks himself, "Why am I doing this?" has come to the wrong place.
If when you read the previous paragraph the word "Disney" popped into your mind, that would be an entirely reasonable response. Disney was, however, not as visible at Comic-Con as I might have expected, and perhaps that was because it has since 2009 been staging what I take to be its own version of the con, called D23 Expo, every other year at the Anaheim Convention Center. (D23, also launched in 2009, is the official Disney fan club.) This year's Expo will take place August 14-16.
The pattern is the same as at San Diego: Disney fans, all certifiably irony-free, will pay $74 a day, or $216 for all three days, to get juiced up about forthcoming Disney films, most of them live-action remakes of animated features or new installments in Robert Iger's beloved franchises. Of the scheduled presentations, my favorite is this one: "Pixar Secrets Revealed! Hear the Stories They Didn't Want You to Know!" Reading that, I immediately pictured John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and Pete Docter fighting their way past a phalanx of Disney flacks to get to the microphone. "I will not be silenced!" Lasseter cries, as the deceptively slender Docter fells a burly Disney operative with a karate chop. And then...sorry, I forgot I'm in an irony-free zone. Actually, none of Pixar's big guns will be on that particular panel.
It will be interesting to see if in a few years Disney has grown its Expo to the point that it becomes a true rival to the Comic-Con. I can easily imagine that happening, especially since the Anaheim venue probably makes more sense for a large-scale fan gathering.
I almost forgot to mention the principal reason I attended this year's Comic-Con, which was, of course, the Eisner Award nomination, for best scholarly/academic book, for my Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books. Comic books seemed almost beside the point at Comic-Con, dominated as it is by big-budget movies and TV shows, but a section of the convention floor was set aside for dealers in old comic books (seriously overpriced old comic books, to my mind), and comic books were the whole point of the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards.
The day before the awards ceremony on July 10, Phyllis read the list of six nominees and said, "This one will win." She was not talking about my book, and she was right. The winner was Graphic Details: Jewish Women's Confessional Comics in Essays and Interviews, edited by Sarah Lightman. The twin juggernauts of gender and ethnicity will flatten the funny animals every time. I suppose that's why I never bothered to draft an acceptance speech.
Regardless, I enjoyed my visit to Comic-Con. It was a fascinating experience that reminded me of my first visit to Las Vegas. As in that case, I can't imagine that a return visit would be a good idea, but that doesn't mean I won't be back.
Creative costumes are a tradition at Comic-Con, and here are five con attendees costumed as well-known figures in the comics world: Jerry Beck (proprietor of the Cartoon Research website among many other things), Maggie Thompson (editor for many years with her late husband, Don, of Comics Buyer's Guide), Bill Schelly (author of the outstanding new biography of Harvey Kurtzman), and, oh, yes, Michael Barrier and wife Phyllis. You ask, are these are not the real people? The Michael Barrier look-alike's unruly hair is the giveaway; no way I'd let my hair get that long! Unless maybe I'd been traveling for two weeks with no barber in sight...
When Disneyland opened, sixty years ago next month, Western Printing & Lithographing Company sent a contingent of two dozen of its executives and their spouses, from different branches of the company and different cities—the home office at Racine, New York, Poughkeepsie, and Saint Louis. Photos of many of those people turned up in the August issue of The Westerner, the company's house organ. Western had a big stake in the success of the Disneyland— not only did it produce almost all of the books and other publications with the Disney characters, but it had bought a 13.79 percent stake in the park (which then operated as a separate company) when Walt Disney was desperately in need of money to finish it.
All thirty-two pages of the August Westerner were devoted to Disneyland and to Disney products, including the Dell comic books. You'll see below the pages with prominent mentions of the comic books or pictures of people who were closely involved with them. You'll find the names of Lloyd E. Smith and Robert S. Callender listed multiple times in the index for my book about the Dell comics, Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books, and, of course, you'll find people like Gene Autry and Rex Allen, or versions of them, in the comic books themselves.
To go to a larger version of each page, click on it.
Unidentified in The Westerner's caption for the lower photo on this page, but recognizable, are Edward Selzer, the head of Warner Bros. Cartoons, Inc., who is standing behind Rex Allen; John Burton, the Warner production manager, on the back row at the left, next to the dark-haired woman; and Chuck Jones, on the back row at the right, behind the man wearing glasses. Robert Callender is standing behind George Delacorte. As other people are identified I'll add their names here.
When Martin Williams and I co-edited A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics, we included four stories by Harvey Kurtzman, two from Mad and two from the EC war comics. After the book was published in 1982, I sent a copy to Kurtzman and got this thank-you note in return. (Which was more than I ever got from John Stanley, alas.)
Kurtzman has just become the subject of an imposing new biography by Bill Schelly, published by Fantagraphics. It's surely the most important biography of a cartoonist since David Michaelis's Schulz and Peanuts (2007), and it's a much better book. You can read my full review of Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created Mad and Revolutionized Humor in America on the Commentary page at this link.
I still have any number of good books to write about in my books backlog, including David Lesjak's Service with Character and, of course, John Canemaker's The Lost Notebook. I hope to clear away some of that backlog before I head west for the Comic-Con and other destinations.
The artwork on this splendid neckpiece is a variation on Carl Barks's drawing for the cover of the first issue of Uncle Scrooge, from 1952. But you knew that. I know of nothing in my wardrobe better suited to the Eisner Awards ceremony. (Thanks for the tie, Patrick Garabedian.)
Tomorrowland: Ever since I saw The Incredibles, I've approached any new film directed by Brad Bird, whether animated or live action, with great anticipation. Bird has earned the right to the benefit of any doubt. Unfortunately, while I was watching Tomorrowland, his new live-action feature for Disney, my doubts piled up as high as one of the futuristic spires in the movie itself.
hopelessly schematic; that is, Bird is not so much telling a story as laying out an argument. It's a cold, didactic film, sort of like one of Miyazaki's environmental fables but without the redeeming mystery and beauty (unless, that is, you find Bird's CGI city of the future beautiful rather than repellent, as I do).
There are echoes in Tomorrowland of two earlier Bird films, The Iron Giant and The Incredibles, especially the former, but in neither did Bird have to work so hard to jam together the pieces of a fatally complicated plot. There is almost no opportunity, in this movie more than two hours long, for the audience to enjoy the characters' company; George Clooney in particular seems trapped in a claustrophobic role. Here as in many other respects the fault is beyond doubt Bird's, and the whole film his folly: I counted his name six times in the end credits, including as co-author of story and screenplay.
By the time I read those credits, I was alone in the theater; the other two people in the audience had long since departed.
Bird speaks now of returning to animation, and I hope he does. I hope too that he acquires the humility, after the weak performance of Tomorrowland, to work from someone else's good script, but that may be hoping for too much.
Chico and Rita: This is not a new movie—a Spanish-British co-production, it was a surprise nominee for the best animated feature Oscar in 2012—but it's available now, at little or no cost, on
streaming services like amazon and Netflix. Milt Gray called it to my attention, and I'm glad he did. Here is what Milt said:
I love the movie because the story is so strong, involving characters we can really care about, and a lot of careful attention has been paid to the Cuban and American jazz music of the era from 1948 onward. The story carefully weaves itself through actual historical events.
Chico and Rita is not animated—it was shot in live action and then rotoscoped. But the live actors were quite expressive with their body gestures, and so the results are more pleasing than rotoscoped action usually is. Plus the drawings are not strict illustrations, as rotoscoped movies usually are—these drawings are a few steps removed from illustration, so they look and feel like cartoon characters. And the backgrounds are magnificent. They resemble Ira Turek’s backgrounds in Fritz the Cat, completely interpretive and hand drawn, but with rich detail that evokes a real atmosphere, and they are often moving in 3-D. But not like a Pixar movie—these backgrounds, even while moving in 3-D, always look hand drawn, right down to the individual brush strokes.
I discovered this movie almost by accident, on Netflix. Just as with the very different cartoon movie, Sita Sings the Blues, I thought I’d just look at five or ten minutes, but the story and the characters really hooked me and I was spellbound all the way to the end.
I watched Chico and Rita with two friends, and we all felt the same way. Highly recommended.
Tim Hollis passed through town one day last week, and Hames Ware and I met him for lunch. We talked about cartoons and old-time radio and related matters—including, most notably, the latest of Tim's more than two dozen books, Toons in Toyland: The Story of Cartoon Character Merchandise (University Press of Mississippi). I was happy to write the back-cover blurb for that book, and, if I may, let me quote myself:
This highly entertaining book evokes a time, just a few decades ago, that must seem very strange to most of today's children. It was a time when kids could see cartoons only in theaters or on TV, in shows that could not yet be recorded. Cartoon-themed merchandise was thus a way to stay connected with beloved characters who were otherwise just as inaccessible as flesh-and-blood movie stars. Thanks to Tim Hollis and his richly illustrated book, readers who remembers those days can revisit them with a smile—a lot of cartoon merchandise was hilariously awful—and younger readers can enjoy peeking through a window into what life was like before cartoons became ubiquitous on videotapes and DVD.
Exactly right, although "immensely entertaining" might say it even better.
A lot of cartoon-character merchandise has surprisingly little to do with the cartoons themselves. For instance, Tim points out in his book how far removed the early Jay Ward and Hanna-Barbera Little Golden Books were from the characters as they appeared on the screen.The first Yogi Bear Little Golden Book "seems to be based on the wrong source, as Yogi eats honey to gain strength, just as Popeye did with spinach." And then there's the first Flintstones Golden Book, in which Fred and Wilma have a son, Junior, and a pet dinosaur, Harvey.
Did such anomalies bother the people who owned the characters? Not much, I can say with considerable assurance after reading the correspondence between Western Printing and a number of its licensors when I was writing Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books. The Dell comic books often departed from their originals—sometimes radically, and often for the better—but that doesn't seem to have concerned the licensors. What really mattered to them was the size of their checks, and Western paid well, and on time.
Last February, I published on theFunnybooks feedback page a piece by Kim Weston, written originally for CAPA-alpha, about Carl Barks's income from Western Printing & Lithographing Company during the quarter century that he drew the Disney ducks for Western's Dell and Gold Key comic books. Kim has now revised and updated that comment to take into account some additional information about Western's pay rates in a memoir by Matt Murphy, who was in charge of comic books in Western's New York office from 1952 to 1970. You can go directly to Kim's update by clicking on this link.
As Kim's piece indicates, Western apparently drew distinctions based on geography (higher rates for New York artists) and the nature of the drawings (higher rates for artists who drew stories that required a more realistic style, as opposed to cartoon characters of the Disney kind). As further evidence of that, here is what "Sparky" Moore, who drew cowboys like Johnny Mack Brown for Western's Dell comic books, told Hames Ware and me in a phone interview a few years ago:
So, yes, you started at twenty dollars [per penciled and inked page], and the rate never went higher than thirty dollars. I could never get the thirty dollars. I got up to twenty-nine dollars, but I could never make it [to thirty]. I think it was Chuck McKimson who said, “Don’t worry, nobody has ever gotten it.” But that was the pay scale. And you didn’t do the lettering, you just did the artwork. They had a letterer, and when your work was delivered, all you did was put in the balloons, and he’d do the lettering. You’d do the pencils, and he’d letter it, and then you could build the picture around that.
From all appearances, Western's pay policies were like those of many other publishers that dealt with free-lancers; that is, there was a de facto minimum, but room to raise the rates a little as circumstances seemed to require. Certainly that was the way things worked when I was a sub-editor at a business magazine, commissioning short pieces. Would Carl Barks have been paid more if Western had any real reason to believe that he might bolt to another publisher? Maybe; but no other publisher was a good fit for Barks, as Western undoubtedly knew. Making him an employee was probably the best solution for both Barks and Western, since it introduced a welcome element of certainty into the inherently uncertain free-lance relationship.
There's something else, which Kim Weston points out: "Sparky Moore's comments bring up another important distinction between Barks and other artists. Sparky and other artists got a script, penciled it and sketched in space for word balloons and brought pencils in to the office. There it was lettered and possibly criticized and/or edited. Then they got it back, inked it and brought in the finished story. Writers (perhaps not all) turned in story ideas for approval, then went back and wrote them. In contrast, Barks had vastly more freedom. He came up with a story idea, wrote it, drew it, lettered it, turned it in and got paid. And generally all that with no interference or prior approval other than on gag ideas and cover ideas, and apparently often not on those either."
From Milt Gray (and ultimately from the National Archives) comes this circa-1950 photo from Times Square, documenting Little Lulu's strongest and longest-lasting commercial affiliation, with the Kimberly-Clark company, makers of Kleenex. I was reminded, looking at this photo, that Lulu's status was always a little different from that of the other stars of the monthly Dell comic books. The Disney, Warner Bros., MGM, and Lantz characters existed primarily on film; the comic books and other licensed items were spinoffs. The same was true of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. The Lone Ranger was mainly a radio and then TV character, and Red Ryder the star of a widely published comic strip. Tarzan was omnipresent in books, movies, and newspaper comics. Lulu's fame rested on her weekly gag panel in the Saturday Evening Post, but that stopped a few months before the first Little Lulu comic book appeared. There were Lulu animated cartoons for a few years in the late 1940s, and merchandise of various kinds, but it was as a comic-book character that she had the longest and most profitable life, her popularity owing in very large part to the brilliance of John Stanley's writing..
As a comics-obsessed kid, preoccupied with nerdy niceties of my own peculiar kind, I found Little Lulu's anomalous status vaguely disturbing. There was, it seemed to me, something not quite legitimate about characters that had no life to speak of outside the comic books in which they were featured. The "pure" comic-book characters, like those that filled most of the DC comic books, were a little shabby in my eyes. Memories of such pickiness embarrass me now, but I am, to be sure, still a comic-book snob. It's just that my snobbery has evolved, and it now embraces Little Lulu without the slightest hesitation.
Speaking of comic books...
As I've mentioned, my most recent book, Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books, has been nominated for one of the Eisner awards, usually described as the comic-book industry's equivalents of the Oscars. The 2015 Eisners will be awarded at Comic-Con International in San Diego the evening of July 10. I've never attended one of the San Diego conventions, but this seems like a good year to break my fast, and Phyllis and I plan to be in town for the entire convention. I'm certainly not counting on a victory in my book's "Best Scholarly/Academic Work" category—the competition is intimidating—but if it should win, how gratifying it would be to accept the award in person!
I've mentioned a number of reviews of Funnybooks that I thought showed a welcome understanding of what I was trying to do in the book, but I haven't mentioned until now the glowing review by the leading film scholar David Bordwell on his website. It's tremendously pleasing to earn praise from a writer with a record as distinguished as David's
...and comic-book people...
The name Matthew H. Murphy should ring a bell with readers of Funnybooks. He's mentioned in the book a half dozen times, as the most important of Oskar Lebeck's successors at the head of Western Printing's comic-book operations in New York City. I've just learned from Robin Snyder's invaluable monthly first-person history The Comics! that Murphy died last November 20, at the age of ninety-one. I would love to have met Murphy and talked with him about his time at Western, but by the time I began work on Funnybooks, and approached him through Robin, his health would not permit that. Fortunately, Murphy shared some of his memories with Robin, most notably in a memoir just published in Vol. 26, No. 8, of The Comics! (dated August 2015).
You won't find in Murphy's memoir (or in his letters that Robin has also published) any inconsistencies with what I've written in Funnybooks or what I was told by other Western veterans, but what Murphy writes tends more toward the acid and resentful. Happily, Robin has also published warm comments by Everett Raymond Kinstler, one of Murphy's best collaborators on titles like Silvertip and Zorro. Kinstler remembers Murphy as a "dedicated, decent and good friend," and I'm sure that's an accurate assessment. A subscription to The Comics! (twelve monthly issues) is $30 to Robin Snyder, 2745 Canterbury Lane #81, Bellingham WA 98225-1186
...which ones deserve the spotlight?
Kinstler, like Murphy, is mentioned more than once in Funnybooks. I've become aware since the book was published that I may have ruffled some feathers not through what I say about various artists and writers, but by mentioning some of them not at all. There are artists I wish I could have mentioned, like some of the veterans of the old pulp westerns of the thirties. I'm fond of the comic books illustrated by Albert Micale and Harry Parkhurst (aka Harry Parks), but their work as comic-book artists seems to me less important than, say, Jesse Marsh's on western titles like Gene Autry Comics and Johnny Mack Brown; and although I write about Marsh at some length, it's mainly in connection with his work on the most significant of his comic books, Tarzan.
I think it's important that a book like mine tell a story, clearly and accurately, and there were only so many byways I could explore without losing my story. Such considerations weighed especially heavily when I was writing about the latterday Dell and Gold Key comic books. I have nothing against Dan Spiegle, for instance, but I don't find anything in his work that makes me want to write about it. That's the last thing I could say about Barks, or Kelly, or Stanley, or Toth, or Marsh, or...well, if you've read my book, you know the names, and if you haven't read it, those names should give you some idea of what matters to me in a comic-book story.
And before I forget: I mentioned Milt Gray above, and you can find Milt on camera, talking about Bob Clampett (at a gallery, with Willie Ito in attendance), at this link, for the late Paul Maher's Children's Television Archive. The many brief interviews on that site include some not just with animation people but also comic-book artists who doubled in animation (Pete Alvarado, Owen Fitzgerald). The archive is a little rough and ready, unfortunately, with some badly misspelled names (Leo Salkin becomes "Les Selkin," Rudy Larriva is "Rudy Lavera"), but it's still a valuable resource, one I've only begun to explore. Thanks to Mark Evanier for posting a link.
I've added the photo above to my Essay on Walt Disney's arrival in London, and I've revised the text again to take better account of all the new information about the 1935 trip revealed in Didier Ghez's Disney's Grand Tour. You'll notice when you go to the Essay page that this photo is wider than the others there, but that's because I've been working with wider layouts and larger pictures for the last few years, and I decided not to shrink this one just to make it uniform with the others on the page.
Thanks to some minor but necessary eye surgery, I've been unable to read comfortably or spend much time on the computer the last ten days. I've made up for that lack in part by listening to the Amos 'n' Andy radio show from the early and mid-1940s, testing further the conclusion I reached in work on Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books, that Walt Kelly found in that show, and especially in its characters, raw material that he shaped into the "Albert and Pogo" feature in Animal Comics and ultimately into the Pogo comic strip. After listening to a few more hours of the show, and hearing some episodes for the first time, I'm still sure I'm right. I wondered if some Kelly fans might bristle at such a conclusion, but offhand I can recall almost no comments either way. Mark Mayerson wrote: "I hadn't made the connection between Kelly'sdialogue and Amos and Andy, but it's obvious now that you pointed it out." But that was about it.
Not that there's much reason to bristle if you actually listen to the radio shows, which presented Amos and Andy and their friend the Kingfish less as African Americans than as transplanted country bumpkins in the big city (New York). References to the characters' race were absent from the shows I listened to, and it was striking how often that unmistakably white characters, including a number of familiar Hollywood names, addressed Amos and Andy as "Mr. Jones" and "Mr. Brown," without a hint of sarcasm. (As "you boys" sometimes, too, but usually as the equivalent of "you guys," and not in a way that seemed racially condescending.)
Amos and Andy were of course played by two white men, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, but at the close of one show I listened to, they spoke in character but in standard English—very much as if they were black actors who had been playing characters less sophisticated than themselves.
Gosden and Correll performed in blackface in the 1931 movie Check and Double Check, a dreadful mistake that they did not repeat, but they did pose for publicity photos in blackface, as in the example from the early 1940s here. Amos 'n' Andy's saving grace was that it did not traffic in minstrel-show stereotypes, a virtue that was devalued when its creators wore blackface. When Amos 'n' Andy moved to television in 1951, the cast was made up of veteran black actors like those who had played supporting roles on the radio show, but it was too late to start over. Since then, comedy all but indistinguishable from Amos 'n' Andy has reappeared on TV many times, in shows like Sanford and Son, but the actors (if almost never the writers and directors and producers) have always been black. That makes a difference, as it should.
Anyway, to get back to Walt Kelly. If, as I believe, he found Amos 'n' Andy a fruitful source of comic ideas, that says nothing about his thinking on race, which I'm sure was never backward and was by the late 1940s certainly more advanced than that of a great many other white Americans. Just as William Shakespeare found the raw material he needed in Elizabethan melodramas and Hollinshed's Chronicles—sources no one reads for their own sake today—Kelly found a starting point in Amos 'n' Andy.
As in that earlier instance, a great creative mind can turn lead into gold. One thing that's clear from marathon listening to Amos 'n' Andy is that, even as sitcoms go, it usually wasn't very good, whereas Kelly's Pogo of the 1940s and early 1950s was a work of comic genius with few peers in any medium. Kelly repaid his debt to Amos 'n' Andy many times over.
I'll be talking about the book and signing copies at the Arkansas Literary Festival on Saturday. My session will be 10 a.m. at the Central Arkansas Library's Cox Creative Center, 120 River Market Avenue in Little Rock's downtown River Market district. My interlocutor will be Randy Duncan, a professor at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia and co-author of The Power of Comics, the trailblazing introductory textbook for comic art studies courses.
Funnybooks has been nominated for an Eisner award, in the category "Best Scholarly/Academic Work." The "scholarly" fits, I think, and I'll be delighted if I win. If you're not familiar with the Eisners, here's a link to the most up-to-date information.
The book continues to attract some good reviews, including one earlier this month by Paul Gravett in the Times Literary Supplement of London. The TLS, probably the single most prestigious literary publication in English, has given each of my last three books respectful attention, and sometimes much better than that, as with Paul's very gratifying review. It's behind a TLS paywall, unfortunately, but he has published a fuller version on his website.
I have somehow managed not to mention until now Ron Wolfe's very enjoyable piece about me and the book in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which piece is, happily and unexpectedly, not behind a paywall. Ron is a very good cartoonist himself—he draws as well as writes for the newspaper—and he once shared with me a letter he received from Carl Barks. In other words, his article is rooted in much greater knowledge of the comics, and sympathy for them, than is typical of such newspaper pieces.
The ersatz Walt Kelly, behind glass at the Pogo exhibit in the Okefenokee Swamp Park in Waycross, Georgia.
On the Road with Kelly and Barks
Phyllis and I returned last week from a two-week driving trip to the Southeast that had a few animation- and comics-related aspects. We spent a weekend with Didier Ghez and his wife, Rita, in Coral Gables, Florida, and I'm sure Didier and I bored our wives to tears with our endless talk about Disney matters large and small. I'm writing here, though, not about Disney, but about my encounters, through print and a very odd exhibit, with my favorite cartoonists, Carl Barks and Walt Kelly, two of the heroes of Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books.
The Kelly encounter came at the Okefenokee Swamp Park, a nonprofit operation in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, a few miles south of Waycross. For any devotee of Pogo, "Okefenokee" and "Waycross" are names to conjure with (likewise "Fort Mudge," which I spotted on a road sign as we approached the park). There was an annual "Pogofest" held at Waycross, starting in 1987, but it seems to have faded away after Walt Kelly's widow, Selby, died in 2005. Walt Kelly's connection with the Okefenokee Swamp was almost entirely fanciful; he did visit there once, in the 1950s, but all that the swamp actually gave him was a funny-sounding name that lent itself to comic twists.
That was enough, though, to encourage the proprietors of the Okefenokee Swamp Park to present, with Selby Kelly's blessing, an exhibit devoted to Walt and his comic strip, and it was that exhibit I wanted to see. The woman selling tickets was sympathetic—she gave me a bargain rate since I was there only to see the one exhibit—but she was not encouraging. Most visitors, she said, had no idea who Walt Kelly was. When I visited the exhibit, which is tucked away in a corner of a building in a corner of the park, I could understand why.
The heart of the exhibit is a re-creation behind glass of what is supposed to be Kelly's studio, complete with a dummy that represents Kelly himself, at his drawing board. The furnishings of the "studio," and of the cases around it, are made up of what look to be leftovers from the enormous trove of Kelly materials now housed at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum in Columbus. There is a little original art, by Kelly and Hank Ketcham, lots of printed comic strips and books, ephemera like a press pass to the 1956 Democratic national convention, and a few photos.
What is lacking is any explanation, through a wall placard or video loop or something else, of who Walt Kelly was, how he was connected to the Okefenokee, and why he is still held in high esteem by a corps of admirers, more than forty years after his death. There were traces of Pogo elsewhere in the park, like a cut-out drawing on a bridge piling, but no more than traces. No wonder most park visitors are baffled.
I couldn't help but compare the Kelly exhibit—which is, as far as I know, the only such exhibit anywhere—with the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California, which helps to keep alive Schulz's memory, and awareness of his art, not just through an exemplary museum presentation but also through traveling exhibits.
Kelly deserves as much.
If the fannish side of Pogo's post-Walt Kelly existence has been shrinking in recent years—I last received a subscription copy of the Kelly fan magazine, The Fort Mudge Most, in 2009—the more solid and substantial side, rooted in educated readers' awareness of just how wonderful Pogo could be in Kelly's prime years, appears to be thriving, thanks especially to Fantagraphics' splendid collections of the Pogo dailies and Sundays. Likewise, Carl Barks's reputation seems to be enjoying a bump upward thanks to Fantagraphics' reprint series.
I'll have more to say about both series in a few days, in a roundup piece about recent books.
I read a little book about Barks, Carl Barks' Duck: Average American by Peter Schilling Jr. (Uncivilized Books) during the trip, and I enjoyed it, mainly because Schilling obviously loves and admires Barks's stories and relishes writing about them. He read reprinted Barks stories as a kid, but he really connected with Barks through the 1978 Abbeville Press reprint volumes that credited Barks as the author of those stories. The awful Abbeville Press reprints, I should say, because they mauled Barks's page layouts and even his dialogue, but as Schilling's response proves, Barks's genius was so strong that it could survive that careless treatment. Schilling has long since moved on to the Gladstone and Fantagraphics reprints.
Schilling doesn't write about the whole body of Barks's stories—he makes a point of saying that he's writing only about his favorites. Those favorites, fourteen in all, are concentrated in the late 1940s and early 1950s (the period when I think Barks was at his best). They consist of some of Barks's longer stories, mostly from the Donald Duck Four Color series, plus a handful from Walt Disney's Comics & Stories that Schilling calls the "work stories," stories in which Donald becomes an expert rainmaker or a master glasser or something else of the sort.
As writers about Barks's stories tend to do, Schilling struggles a bit with Donald, the problem being that Donald varies so much in Barks's best stories but is always a vivid and distinct personage. Like many other comic-book "funny animals," Barks's Donald lacks a fixed identity; what sets him apart is that his identity in any given story seems to be the only right one when you're reading it.
When I wrote about Donald's mutability in Funnybooks, I invoked Montaigne ("Each man bears the entire form of man's estate"), but I wonder if what John Keats called Shakespeare's "negative capability" might be even more to the point.
What Keats meant by that phrase, as far as anyone can tell, is that Shakespeare left no traces of himself in his characters; that is, the characters are not assertions of the writer's ego but have independent existence. Barks did something similar, the difference being, of course, that all of the highly varied characters that held center stage in his best stories were called "Donald Duck" (and looked like Donald Duck, too). I don't think it will do to describe Donald as an "actor," as Schilling does; that would mean there is a single "real" Donald at the heart of all those performances, and what makes the stories so good is that there isn't one.
Donald is "real" in those stories, to be sure, but differently each time.
I suspect Schilling's unease with Donald's mutability is of a piece with his enthusiasm for "Vacation Time" (1950) from the first issue of Walt Disney's Vacation Parade. Donald
is, in much of that story, if not exactly mature, recognizably adult and even admirable, more so than in other stories that I think are better.
The "Vacation Time" Donald is a simpler character than the Donald in those
other stories, and what I relish in Barks's best stories is Donald's complexity. That complexity is manifested in pages like those I've cited in Funnybooks from "Luck of the North" (1949) and "The Gilded Man" (1952), where we can see the workings of Donald's mind; Schilling doesn't mention those pages, even though he writes at length about both stories.
Schilling can be wrongheaded, as in his misreading of the conflict between Uncle Scrooge and the Beagle Boys. When he asks, "who doesn't root for the Beagle Boys in their pursuit?" I think most readers would give him an answer he didn't expect, unless those readers had surrendered their souls to some large, impersonal organization like Beagle Boys, Inc. But I agree with him that the latterday emphasis on Scrooge is misplaced; the best Four Color adventures are far superior to anything in Uncle Scrooge. Likewise, Schilling is inclined to nitpick, but that impulse sometimes yields amusing and interesting results. Before reading his book, I hadn't given much thought to the role that eggs often play in Barks's stories; but he was, after all, briefly a poultry farmer.
Much of the recent writing about Barks has been academic in flavor and often in fact. Schilling's book is not like that, and that's why I like it. He sometimes goes too far in the other direction, indulging in the pointlessly coarse rather than taking the trouble to write with greater precision, but I can forgive a great deal in someone who loves Barks's comic books as much as he does.
Funnybooks in Review. The fifth issue of the Carl Barks Fan Club Pictorial, published by Joseph and Barb Cowles, is out, with my piece titled "The Improbable Glories of Carl Barks." It's an expanded and revised version of the preface to Funnybooks, with a page of my photos of Barks taken between 1969 and 1998. There's also a gratifyingly positive review of Funnybooks by Barb, and lots of other Barks-related material, most of it about his comic-book work, rather than the paintings that have been a focus of fan interest in recent years. Kim Weston is an important contributor, writing in precise detail about Barks's single "Andy Panda" story for New Funnies, and restoring and reformatting a wartime "Barney Bear and Benny Burro" story so that it appears for the first time in the correct proportions. And there's more. The CBFC Pictorial is beautifully produced, in full color throughout. The list price is $15.95, but it's available from amazon.com for (as of this writing) $12.46. Highly recommended.
And for a review of Funnybooks written from a different perspective, that of "furry fandom," let me refer to you Fred Patten's review at this link. What is "furry fandom," you may ask? I'm really not quite sure how to describe it, even though the phenomenon has attracted growing media coverage. Best you visit Fred's "Dogpatch Press" site and explore "furry fandom" for yourself. Fred says of Funnybooks that it's "the story of the comic-book publisher whose works did more than any others’ to inspire furry fandom," and that should give you a clue as to what "furry fandom" is all about.
Tim Burton's Dumbo. Disney revealed early this month that a live-action/CGI version of Dumbo is in the works, with Tim Burton directing.
I was reminded of something I wrote a dozen years ago, in a review of Lilo and Stitch. I didn't know it at the time, but Disney was then contemplating not a live-action remake of Dumbo, but a direct-to-video animated sequel. I suggested how a remake might look, given the priorities being observed by the Disney of 2003:
If Dumbo were being made by today's Disney studio, ... Dumbo (his name changed to Zumbo to avoid offending the stupid) would talk, of course, and he and Timothy would have a conversation in which Zumbo says something like "G-g-gosh, Timothy, isn't it wonderful that the magic feather will let me fly? D-d-do you suppose that I might be able to fly some day without the feather?" Timothy replies, a little nervously: "Nah—nah—let's stick with the feather, pal. No use gettin' fancy!"
And then, as Zumbo is plummeting to earth, his pink and cuddly little elephant girlfriend cries out, from where she has been imprisoned by the evil ringmaster, "Zumbo! I know you can do it! Fly, Zumbo, fly!" But Zumbo keeps plunging toward that tub, not knowing that when he hits it, that will be the signal for the evil ringmaster to grow to enormous size and unleash a horde of evil clowns on the world. And then ...well, enough of such morbid fantasizing.
Actually, my morbid fantasizing was probably not morbid enough.
Gordon Kent and Chris Barat. To my regret, I never met either of these men, both of whom died recently, and both much too young. Gordon and I corresponded occasionally, brought together originally by our shared affection for Roger Armstrong. I posted a dozen or more of his comments on comics and animation—he worked for many years at TV-cartoon studios—and they were always a pleasure to read. I last heard from him in 2011, which was, I have learned from Mark Evanier's warm and affectionate tribute, the year Gordon was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Chris Barat and I never exchanged any messages, as best I can tell, and I somehow managed not to be aware of the regard in which he was held by many fans of the Disney comic books. Probably that was because he devoted considerable attention on his blog, News and Views by Chris Barat, to subjects, like the Don Rosa stories with the ducks and the TV series DuckTales, that have never much interested me. But he wrote about them very well, enough to make me want to take another look. Late last year, he wrote a review of Funnybooks that I didn't see until after his death from complications attending a kidney transplant; I wish I had seen it in time to thank him for it.
Bill Benzon. He's the scholar who posts remarkable "close readings" of animated cartoons, some of which you'll find elsewhere on this site if you run a search for his name. They're always worth a serious fan's attention. His most recent is of Bob Clampett's Porky in Wackyland, on the academia.edu site. Bill also posts a wide variety of material, most of it unrelated to cartoons, on his own New Savanna blog (I particularly recommend the item about the extinction of the woolly mammoth). I think Bill qualifies as a polymath, and it's good to know that cartoons have attracted the interest of at least one such person.
Coming attractions. I have let a lot of worthy books pile up, again, and I hope to post another "book backlog" item soon that will give them their due. I'll be writing separately about the most important recent book, John Canemaker's The Lost Notebook.
Gerry Geronimi is seated at the left in the photo above, next to Walt Disney. Wilfred Jackson, another Disney director, is seated at the far right, and he described the circumstances of this photo in a 1971 letter to Bob Clampett: "This was the day Max Fleischer, who made the 'Out of the Inkwell' cartoons I admired so much when I was a boy, visited the Disney Studio. I had the privilege of showing him all around the studio in the morning, then we had lunch with Walt and some of the oldtimers in the studio cafeteria." The "oldtimers," some of them mentioned in the Geronimi interview, include, from Walt's left, Ben Sharpsteen, Ted Sears, Max Fleischer, Dick Huemer, George Stallings, Max's son Richard Fleischer (who directed the Disney live-action feature 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), and Andy Engman. Facing the camera at another table in the background are the Disney executives Bill Anderson and Card Walker.
Interviews: Gerry Geronimi
Milt Gray and I interviewed Geronimi, the most controversial, not to say reviled, of the Disney animation directors, in 1976, and you can read the complete transcript of that interview at this link.
My interviews require a lot of work before they're suitable for publication—especially the earlier interviews, like Geronimi's, that exist only as typescripts that must be scanned, and not as computer files. Unfortunately, the work required doesn't seem to be diminishing over time, despite my occasional wishful thinking that I've found a magic bullet of some kind. I'm often prey to doubts that the audience for the interviews is large enough to justify so much work, but I know that at least a few people share my interest in them. There's Didier Ghez, of course, who in his ongoing Walt's People series has collected hundreds of vintage interviews, including a number of mine. Pete Docter of Pixar likes them, too, and I invited Pete to suggest some priorities once I had the Geronimi interview posted. He proposed two Disney directors: Wilfred Jackson, whom I interviewed at length in 1973 and 1976, and Jack Kinney, whom I interviewed in 1973, 1976, and 1986. Excellent choices, and I'll post some or all of those interviews. Probably not real soon, but keep checking back.
Will Friedwald's wonderful review of my latest book, Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books, is on page C10 of the Review section in today's Wall Street Journal. Here's a link. Happily, Will's review doesn't seem to be behind a paywall.
Thad Komorowski has produced an outstanding six-minute tribute to Michael Sporn that was broadcast earlier this week as a segment of the WBGO Journal and is now accessible at this link.
The Sporn tribute is about as long as a classic animated short, and like the best of those shorts it's bright and compact. The listener learns a lot about Michael Sporn, and about what made him special, in a very short time.
Several of Michael's friends and colleagues—John Canemaker, Mark Mayerson, Ray Kosarin—and Michael's widow, Heidi Stallings, speak on the show about what made Michael so distinctive and admirable a filmmaker: his deep New York roots, his devotion to animation as an art form, the artistic sensibility that he expressed with so much integrity while working on a remarkable number of subjects in a wide variety of styles.
Michael really was a marvel, and he deserves to be remembered as fully and as sympathetically as he is in the WBGO segment. Thank you, Thad.
According to Art Babbitt, who lent me this photo for copying, Gunther Lessing, at the right, hosted this party early in 1940, long before Babbitt and Lessing collided in the runup to the 1941 Disney studio strike. Babbitt is at the far left, seated by his wife, Marjorie Belcher; the animator Les Clark and his wife, Mimi, are across the table, next to Lessing. The writing on the cover of the program on the table is "Carl Laemmle Theatre."
On Gunther Lessing
I've added a sentence to my essay called "Walt's Adventures in the Ivy League" to take into account that Gunther Lessing, for many years Disney's general counsel, was a 1908 graduate of the law school at Yale University, one of the two Ivy League schools that gave Walt Disney an honorary degree in 1939.
Lessing's colorful personal history, as a native of Waco, Texas, and a lawyer in El Paso, was recounted in an article by Ballard Coldwell Shapleigh in the April-May 2011 issue of the El Paso Bar Journal. That article includes the first confirmation I've seen that Lessing's family background was not only German but also Jewish, as Ward Kimball told me back in 1986, in an interview that I posted here in 2003. I was skeptical, but it seems that Kimball was right. Here is what the Bar Journal says about Lessing's family history:
Gunther Rudolph Lessing was born in Waco, Texas, on July 20, 1885, three years after his sister, Hannah. His father, Rudolph Lessing, came from the state of Hessen in Germany. Rudolph was a prominent merchant and cotton factor in Waco doing business with three partners under the name of Lessing, Solomon and Rosenthal.
Rudolph Lessing was a charter member of the Temple Rodef Sholom congregation founded in Waco in 1879, and reputed to be the oldest Jewish reform congregation in central Texas. He was also that congregation's first president.
Rudolph died when Gunther was age 10. Gunther's mother, Bertha Bouger, was also a native of Hessen but nine years younger than her spouse. She died in El Paso in 1911.
There are any number of loose ends here, some of which it may be possible to tie up with research in the online sources that have become available in the last few years. For example, was Gunther Lessing's mother Jewish? If she was not, that would have some bearing on whether Lessing regarded himself as Jewish, since Jewish identity is traditionally regarded as inherited through the mother.
This scrap of information about Lessing's ethnicity is another strike against the persistent notion that Walt Disney was anti-Semitic. Walt and Roy Disney worked closely with Lessing for more than thirty years; it's impossible for me to believe they were unaware of Lessing's Jewish heritage, any more than they were unaware of Joe Grant's or Maurice Rapf's or Kay Kamen's.
The Disneys were certainly aware of the more notorious aspects of Lessing's past, such as his involvement with Pancho Villa, the Mexican revolutionary, and Dolores Del Rio, the Mexican actress, and his headline-making divorce in 1932. They valued him for his loyalty and pugnacity; nothing else mattered very much.
(Thanks to Garry Apgar for alerting me to Lessing's Yale connection.)
When I wrote last July 23 about the subscription premiums offered by the Dell comic books, I mentioned the pinup shown above, by Walt Kelly and titled, with eccentric punctuation, "The Disney Gang 'at the Circus.'"A copy of the pinup, whose image area is 13 1/2 by 9 inches, was offered in 1949 to subscribers to Walt Disney's Comics & Stories. You can go to a larger version by clicking on the image above. My copy is framed, and I dreaded the thought of taking it out of the frame, but John Sykes, Jr., chief photographer for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the local daily, came to my rescue by taking the excellent picture you see here.
This is prime Walt Kelly, from the year when Pogo was first nationally syndicated. Kelly's covers for Walt Disney's Comics would end the next year, as would almost all of his comic-book work except for his own quarterly Pogo Possum. His long association with the Disney characters, at the studio and then in the comic books, is evident in the pinup; there are about thirty characters, and they almost all look "right" (Mickey Mouse may be an exception), even when they depart in some way from the standard models.
As far as I know, this pinup has never been re-published since 1949. That seems odd; I can easily imagine its being sold as a frameable print at Disneyland back in the 1950s, and in other venues as well, then and later.
Changing email providers from Comcast to AT&T, as Phyllis and I did last fall, seemed like a good idea at the time but has turned out not to be, to put it mildly. Fortunately, we held off closing our Comcast account, so, please write to me again, and from now on, at firstname.lastname@example.org. My att.net address will remain valid for a little while longer, but the Comcast address is the one to use.
It has been a little over a year since that wonderful cartoon maker died, and I think of him often, especially when I watch some film on which we probably would have had a very enjoyable disagreement.
And how I wish he were here to tell me what he thought of Funnybooks! Other people, especially his former colleagues in New York, remember him as warmly as I do. This comes from ASIFA-East:
Michael Sporn was one of the giants of the New York animation community. From 1980 until his untimely death last year, Michael Sporn’s studio produced many acclaimed television specials, most of them animated entirely here in New York.
To commemorate the first anniversary of his passing, ASIFA-East is hosting an evening of Tribute to Michael Sporn—and we’re encouraging members of the animation community to contribute to a tribute reel to be presented at the event and preserved online.
ASIFA-East Tribute to Michael Sporn
Monday, March 2, 2015
6:30 pm – 9:00 pm (doors open at 6:00 pm)
SVA Theatre [Beatrice]
333 West 23rd Street (between 8th & 9th Ave.)
New York, NY
(no RSVP required)
For the tribute reel we are inviting anyone to participate and send their personal message about Michael, his work, what he means to you, his animation, whatever you feel moved to say. You can write, draw, paint, photograph, GIF, audio record or videotape your message. Please email your tribute to email@example.com by next Friday, February 20.
Please join the others who knew him, worked with him, and read “Splog”—his celebrated blog—to look back at his footprints and keep his legacy alive for the future.
Has anyone else been getting requests from students for interviews about Walt Disney as part of "History Month"? I've sat for a few such interviews, mostly by phone and once in person, but I eventually decided to call it quits. The kids have seemed, in the modern manner, interested not so much in Walt—and certainly not in what I've written about him—as in racking up points in some phantom academic competition. I'm not an evangelist who feels compelled to seize every opportunity to spread the Gospel of Walt, so I've been suggesting that my correspondents get in touch with the Walt Disney Family Museum. I hope I'm not making enemies there.
StrangeMagic has been treated as an embarrassment by its proprietor, Disney, and thus by Disney's internet lickspittles, many of whom obviously couldn't be bothered to test their opinions against the movie itself. Disney dumped this CGI feature cartoon, made in Singapore by its now-shuttered Lucasfilm unit, into the theatrical marketplace a few weeks ago with minimal publicity, and it has probably disappeared from your local theaters by now. Disney may reasonably have feared unflattering comparisons with Frozen, since two of the leading characters in both cartoons are sisters, and there's also a handsome, treacherous villain in both. By releasing Strange Magic under its Touchstone label, and not as a Disney cartoon, Disney put as much distance as possible between Frozen and Strange Magic, which it presumably had to release theatrically under its contract with George Lucas.
The online condemnations of Strange Magic were so sulfurous that I decided I had to see it. After all, I thought, it might be another Polar Express, which the animation jihadis hated but I found fascinating and even enjoyable.
Strange Magic is strange, all right, and the first hour or so is awful in the usual CGI manner. There's a thick crust of elaborated surfaces, way too much smarty-pants dialogue, a frantically restless camera, rapid cutting that repeatedly tests the weary eyeball's ability to keep up, and, especially, characters—elves and fairies and such—who, when they're not the usual plasticine dolls, resemble all too closely, but not really closely enough, their predecessors in roughly comparable films like Pixar's A Bug's Life, whose grasshopper villain anticipates the Bog King in the new film. (You can dismiss any thoughts of A Midsummer Night's Dream, supposedly the basis for the story, which is credited, if that's the word, to Lucas). What makes Strange Magic really strange is that it's a jukebox musical, with a soundtrack assembled from pop songs spanning several decades. Most of the music undermines any charm to be found in the fairy-tale visuals, and there's not enough wit evident in the choice of the songs, which conceivably could have been used to create a sort of alternative atmosphere: fey but with tongue in cheek.
To my surprise, though, I left the theater feeling quite cheerful, and with warm feelings for Strange Magic and its makers. Like the other people working on CGI features, they were imprisoned in a creative straitjacket, condemned to make a cartoon of the sort the market supposedly requires, but they found an escape route in the conflict between the two principal characters, the Bog King and the fairy princess Marianne. Even though they're antagonists at first, the Bog King is never presented as a coal-black villain, and so there's an opening for comedy, and then, eventually, for a full-blown romance. There is, remarkably, nothing arbitrary or abrupt about how the relationship evolves. There is instead a gradual change in their feelings for each other—not a steady progression, but the sort of back and forth that occurs as two people come to care for each other even when they have no reason to expect such an outcome. In other words, Strange Magic felt to me surprisngly real at its core.
I love animation for its ability, at its best, to make what we see on the screen seem as real as our own experiences, but in radically different ways. That is what happens in Strange Magic—very imperfectly and in a film most of whose running time is put to less exalted uses, but in today's CGI environment any such departure from the norm deserves applause. I don't know who deserves the most credit. Gary Rydstrom directed Strange Magic, and his background is in sound design, not animation, but he also shared the screenwriting credit. And then there's the indispensable voice work by Alan Cumming, as the Bog King.
Regardless, something good happened during work on Strange Magic. I can't encourage you to see it in a theater, because it won't be playing in many theaters by the time you read this; and I hesitate to recommend that you see it on Netflix, because so much of it is so bad, especially in the early going, that you may give up long before it's over. Maybe, like the Disney junkies on the internet, you should skip watching the movie and just go with what "everybody knows," "everybody" in this case being...well, me.
I posted the photo above on July 16, 2011, under the heading "Mystery Men." I wrote then: "When I interviewed the Disney animator Jerry Hathcock in 1986, he lent me that photo so that I could make a copy negative. That's obviously Jack Hannah—animator, story man who teamed with Carl Barks, and finally director of Donald Duck shorts—at the left; Jerry told me that two of the other three men were Nicholas George and Ted Bonnicksen, but he wasn't sure which was which, and neither am I."
But now I know that the man in the striped shirt is Ted Bonnicksen, thanks to this message I received:
My name is Dr. Thomas M. Bonnicksen. I am Professor Emeritus of Forest Science from Texas A&M University. I am the son of Hans Madsen Bonnicksen, brother of Theodore “Ted” Bonnicksen. Ted is my uncle. We were all born in Cook County, Illinois; that is Chicago. I have very little information about my family, just some scraps from old home movies and a few recollections from family members. I remember Ted from when I was a little boy, maybe 6-8 years old, when he came to visit us in Long Beach, Indiana. What I remember most about him was his kindness. I kept asking him to draw a cartoon for me. He finally drew one on a napkin. It is long since gone. It was Bugs Bunny dreaming about a steak (which was dinner that night).
Uncle Ted was lanky (I know that from an old movie of him playing badminton with my father in the back yard). I also searched what few old movies I had to see if I could find his hair style and face. I did. One image is attached. I compared it with your photo. Uncle Ted is on the right and my uncle Andy, a famous WWII veteran (who flew 30 missions over France and survived, and won many medals for bravery), is on the left. They created a sensation in the papers when they met accidentally in England as brothers during the war. Of course, Ted had already been drawing WWII cartoons at the time.
There is no question that Uncle Ted is the animator drawing something in your photo and wearing a striped shirt.
Ted Bonnicksen's name may be most familiar from his work on Bob McKimson's Warner Bros. cartoons; below is the model sheet for the Tasmanian Devil that he shared with his family. I'm glad to have the opportunity to give him some of the recognition he deserves.
As I hoped, the book is stimulating some thoughtful comments. You can go straight to the most recent such by clicking here.
[A February 4, 2015, update: I've posted more meaty comments in the last few days, including Mark Evanier and Kim Weston on whether Barks was "exploited," either because he wasn't credited in the comic books or wasn't paid enough. It's very gratifying to me that Funnybooks has stimulated this sort of discussion.]
calling the Disney cartoons "animations," in preference to "animated films" or "animated cartoons." I’d never before seen such a use of the word, and it reinforced my sense that Gabler lacks a clear understanding of how the films were made.
Keith Scott, an Australian cartoon voice expert, agreed, though he had a somewhat different take on the matter:
In your list of corrections you mention (with regard to page 235) his [Gabler’s] usage of the word "animations"—that kept niggling at me throughout his tome from the moment I began reading it. I immediately thought of late 1960s Britain and Terry Gilliam’s contributions to the TV series Monty Python’s Flying Circus. In various articles about the Python team, as well as in the credits of the TV episodes themselves, "animations by" was used to describe the linking by Gilliam of one sketch to another by means of imaginative (ostensibly "free-associative") cut-out animation. I don’t know if it is a term used in Europe or maybe just Britain; but certainly I recall older British film weeklies and annuals of the 1930s and '40s simply using the word "cartoons." It seems a useful term to describe a one-person job like Gilliam’s work, but not the products of a studio like Disney’s. I guess it just feels very strange to me for an American author to apply the word to American theatrical animation (shorts and features), when the films have always been known as cartoons or, generically, simply animation.
Prior to reading this exchange, I, too, could not recall seeing (or hearing) the word "animations" used in this way, and it struck me as pretentious. However, to my surprise I have since learned that the term has been around for at least 97 years.
In May 1917, Motion Picture Magazine featured a piece written by an Indiana cartoonist, Walter "Hi" Sibley, "Those Aggravatin’ Animations," relating "the trials and tribulations of an animated cartoon artist." A generation later, in the May 1938 issue of Popular Mechanics, in an article by Bill Garity about the making of Snow White ("Latest Tricks of the Animated Film Makers"), Disney’s chief technical wizard said that the studio felt that
the theatergoer would have to be convinced that he was not looking at so many colored drawings but real personalities, animations which lived and breathed.
In the early 1940s, the Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art, referred to Gertie the Dinosaur as "one of the earliest of American animations." And in 1998, several years before Gabler’s biography came out, Steven Watts used the term in his book The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life, referring in one instance to "Disney’s early feature animations," and in another to Disney’s "feature-length animations."
So, though it still strikes me as slightly affected, the term does have a history. And I see no harm in using it—sparingly—whenever I feel the need to vary my language and avoid repeating the words "animated cartoons" two or more times in the same paragraph, or even on the same page.
When I wrote Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books, I included a note at the front of the book asking my readers to let me know when they spotted mistakes. "When," not "if," since any book that's dense with facts is inevitably going to get some of them wrong. So far, to my relief, only one howler has surfaced (flushed from hiding by David Gerstein, editor of Fantagraphics' indispensable reprints of Floyd Gottfredson's Mickey Mouse newspaper strips). You can go straight to that correction via this link.
As gratifying as corrections, and certainly less embarrassing, are the additional facts that are starting to turn up every few days, and that I've also noted on the page titled "Corrections, Clarifications, and Second Thoughts." For instance, Kim Weston has written in regard to the unsettled question of just when Carl Barks began both writing and drawing his stories for Walt Disney's Comics & Stories, a question of real interest because Barks so successfully blended the roles of writer and artist. Thanks to Kim, we now have a better idea of what the answer might be.
Funnybooks is starting to attract more attention—The Chronicle of Higher Education chose to reproduce its cover, over those of several dozen other books, when it published a list of new scholarly publications in its January 9 issue—and I hope that as more people read it I'll receive more feedback. I'll welcome more corrections, as they're needed, but I'm especially looking forward to thoughtful responses that encourage a fresh look at stories that may seem almost too familiar.
Speaking of such, Funnybooks has attracted only a few reviews so far—most review copies weren't mailed until earlier this month—but the reviews by Jerry Beck, Thad Komorowski, and Mark Mayerson have been immensely gratifying because those writers, all of them very well versed in comics and animation, understood fully what I was trying to accomplish in the book. How rare that is, many other writers could tell you. The reviews on amazon.com have all been exceptionally intelligent, too, and I don't have to tell you how rare that is.
I finally got to see it the other day. The Sweatbox (2002) is the famous, or infamous, suppressed documentary on the making of what started out as Kingdom of the Sun and became The Emperor's New Groove, the hand-drawn Disney feature cartoon released in 2000.
I haven't said much here about New Groove, but when I mentioned it a dozen years ago, I dismissed it as "wholly cartoonish ... made by people who thought they were slumming ... disfigured by a nonstop sneering jokiness." Mark Dindal wound up with the sole director's credit for New Groove, and the story told in The Sweatbox is essentially how Dindal displaced Roger Allers, co-director of The Lion King, at the head of a project that was close to Allers's heart and that Dindal obviously had no feeling for. Dindal was subsequently credited as the sole director of Disney's execrable CGI feature Chicken Little (2005). I wrote of that film: "To a remarkable extent ... Dindal stayed outside his story and his characters, manipulating them mechanically. For almost the entire length of the film, there's not a trace of the director's personal involvement in his work."
As to why such a director would recommend himself to the people who were then in charge of Disney animation, we get our answer when a preliminary version of Kingdom of the Sun has just passed under the scrutiny of the Disney executives Peter Schneider and Thomas Schumacher. I was startled by the first appearance of those two men, who, as we see them in The Sweatbox, somehow don't look or speak much like ordinary human beings. It's as if Allers's work were being reviewed by a couple of lesser Klingon overlords.
Disney suppressed The Sweatbox because the film makes only too obvious that the people who were then in charge had nothing in common with the members of their staff who cared about the art form.That's not to say that an Allers-directed Kingdom of the Sun would necessarily have been a vast improvement over The Emperor's New Groove. I've never been able to suppress my skepticism about The Lion King, which seems to me far more Jeffrey Katzenberg's film than anyone else's, and I can easily imagine a Kingdom of the Sun that took itself entirely too seriously. But considering how The Emperor's New Groove turned out, it would have been worth taking the chance.
...from a comic book that would have just become eligible for Medicare if it were a person. This is the cover of the February 1950 issue of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies Comics, published 65 years ago this month, and I wish I could be sure who drew it.
Like other Dell gag covers of this vintage, there are aspects of it that can seem just a little odd if you think about them (which is usually not a good idea). Is it plausible that Bugs, a party animal if there ever was one, has taken to his bed on New Year's Eve, while his (presumably) drunken friends yell at him through an open window? Well, maybe he's sick; but then that would make his friends even more inconsiderate, wouldn't it? And is that blonde babe supposed to be Mary Jane? She doesn't look like a little girl to me! Her buddy Sniffles—how did he get so big? And where the heck is Henery Hawk?
Enough of this metaphysical speculation. May you enjoy the new year more than you did the old one.
The front cover of Santa Claus Funnies Four Color Comic No. 128 (1946), drawn by Moe Gollub.
Wishing You a Moe Gollub Christmas
Morris "Moe" Gollub (1910-84) was an artist for Western Printing's Dell comic books in the last half of the 1940s, one of Oskar Lebeck's stalwarts. After Lebeck left Western, Gollub continued to draw and paint for other editors at Western throughout the 1950s and 1960s. He was one of the few Jewish artists who drew for Western, but his most characteristic and endearing work was for a Christmas title, Santa Claus Funnies. "Santa and the Angel," the cover feature in the 1946 issue, written by Lebeck and illustrated by Gollub, had an exceptionally long life for a such a story in the '40s: it was reprinted three years later in a comic book bearing the story's title, and again in a twenty-five-cent comic book, A Christmas Treasury, in 1954. Even when Gollub was illustrating adventure stories, as he often did, he brought to them warmth and even tenderness that set them apart from the run of comics stories. He drew animals correctly, as an artist who understood their anatomy, but he also drew them with an intense sympathy revealed in delicate modeling.
Gollub was a native of St. Louis. He started at the Disney studio in January 1937 and worked as a layout and story-sketch artist, notably on Bambi. He took part the 1941 strike, was laid off after the strike ended, and joined the navy early in 1942. When he left the service, he arranged to be discharged at New York, and he quickly found work at Western with the help of former Disney friends like Walt Kelly and Dan Noonan.
He was back in Hollywood animation, working in layout at Hanna-Barbera, when Milt Gray and I interviewed him at the Sheraton Universal Hotel's coffee shop in 1976.
He said that by the late 1950s he was ready to return to “the animation business. It was really Noonan who got me going there. He had seen that things were going from bad to worse in much of comics at that time; they had taken a big nose-dive. I was getting covers to do at that time”—masterful paintings for the covers of Dell comic books like Tarzan—“and nothing much but covers. They were extremely difficult to do; I didn’t have a fraction of the money coming in for the effort that was involved. They wanted the covers so much they didn’t want me to spend time on anything else, but they weren’t paying a commensurate amount of money. So I kind of sneaked out, and checked out the West Coast, and got a few misleading encouragements from [former Disney colleagues] Art Babbitt and Ade Woolery and one or two others.”
Gollub moved back to Los Angeles in 1960 but continued to paint covers for Western until the early 1970s, when Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc. ended its long association with Western and moved the Tarzan titles to DC. He was president of the cartoonists' union by the summer of 1982, when he led a strike against runaway production that ended in a humiliating defeat for the union. That episode is described in scalding detail by Steve Hulett in Mouse in Transition, serialized on Cartoon Brew and recently published as a book by Theme Park Press. It was not Gollub's finest hour..
I write about Gollub at some length in my new book Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books, but I couldn't locate a suitable photo of him for the book. I still don't have one, but Bob Barrett, who probably knows more about Gollub's comics work than anyone else, has turned up a 1935 photo of the young Gollub, from the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. Bob writes: "The caption
refers to his joining the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) where he was
assigned to Custer State Park in South Dakota, to Camp Pine Lake, which
was in sight of Mount Rushmore. He created wildlife paintings for
display in the newly constructed Custer State Park Museum."
Gollub died on December 30, 1984, so next Tuesday will be the thirtieth anniversary of his death. A good day, like Christmas day, to remember a very special comic-book artist.
I went to the post office this morning to mail a few dozen copies of Funnybooks to people who helped make it a reality in one way or another, from granting copyright clearances to reviewing the manuscript to providing important information, or a combination thereof. The book's sales via amazon.com seem to be proceeding smoothly, and it has already picked up a few positive reviews. So far no one has pointed out any grievous errors, knock on wood. Although corrections haven't yet been necessary, I've been adding a few new facts to my page devoted to corrections, clarifications, etc., most recently some specifics about Oskar Lebeck's post-Western Printing career; that page is at this link.
No doubt Funnybooks will inspire a modest backlash, at least, from people who think that this or that cartoonist or writer should be represented in the book or mentioned at greater length. In some cases such gripes may be justified. I like Gil Turner as a cartoonist, for instance, but it wasn't until the book was at the printer that I finally thought of a good way to acknowledge his best work. If more of Turner's stories had approached the quality of his "Li'l Bad Wolf" in the May 1949 Walt Disney's Comics & Stories, in which the Big Bad Wolf disguises himself as himself, to very humorous effect, it would have been much easier to squeeze him into the book; but most of the stories that he drew and presumably wrote are much more conventional. That quite likely was the fault of his editors as much as or more than the fault of Turner himself, but there's no denying that most of his "Li'l Bad Wolf" stories aren't remotely comparable to Carl Barks's best, in particular.
Gil Turner at his best, with the Big Bad Wolf costumed as another version of himself for a school play (Li'l Wolf thinks his disguised father is actually a cat named Clarence). I've lifted these panels from Thad Komorowski's review of Funnybooks on The Comics Journal's website.
I've had messages from readers who are particularly happy that I've been able to reconstruct the history of the Dell/Western Printing comic books in much greater and more accurate detail than before. Some readers may wonder just why that reconstruction was so difficult. Surely, it may occur to such readers, many of the relevant records must have survived, and there must be multiple corporate archives that can be consulted. As to why that's really not the case where Western Printing is concerned, I can do no better than quote Robin Snyder, the last editor hired for Western's comic books. He was there when Western closed down its comics in 1984:
I walked in on the day management pulled the plug on the Comics Division and was horrified to find several dumpsters on the floor. Each was filled to the brim with comics, hard bound books, film, records, accountings, paintings, payment books and more. The management that had no use for comics and coloring books had no use for the history of the company.
That sounds all too familiar to me. I worked for a business magazine with a more than 75-year history, until it was shut down abruptly in 1999.
What followed over the next couple of weeks was massive destruction, as filing cabinets were emptied with very little regard for what was in them. Some people on the staff were so industrious that even uncashed checks went into the trash. In my own case, I made every effort to salvage material that had a comics/animation connection, like my files for stories on people like Charles Schulz and Bill Melendez, but most of my research files headed straight for the dumpster. That was no tragedy. You can find copies of Nation's Business on eBay, but I doubt that anyone is collecting it even for the sake of my interviews with Sam Walton and Dick Clark and other such business luminaries. The comic books have retained their value much better. But the proprietors' underlying attitude, that their publications were wholly dispensable, was certainly the same in both cases.
Speaking of Robin Snyder, his monthly newsletter The Comics ("the original first-person history," as he calls it, established in 1990) was a valuable resource for me, one that I can wholeheartedly recommend. There is no predicting the contents of any given issue, but almost always there are letters from comic-book veterans, typically illuminating aspects of the business that I wasn't aware of. A year's subscription is $30 from Robin Snyder, 3745 Canterbury Lane, #81, Bellingham WA 98225-1186.
And to close on a book-related side note: In other postings this year, I've expressed my disappointment with, among other things, the price of Funnybooks. The list price is $35, the discounted price on amazon.com is only 10 percent less. The New York Times noted recently, in an absorbing piece (at least it seems that way to me, as an author), that (1) amazon.com's discounts have been shrinking, and (2) book prices have probably been rising more rapidly than prices in general, particularly when the books in questions are out of the mainstream, as Funnybooks certainly is. No good news there, but at least Funnybooks has lots of company.
So why was my new book, Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books, shown on the Web as published on "Black Friday," November 28, even though it was nowhere to be found (as a printed book) for days after that? It took some yelling and table-pounding—I'm speaking metaphorically, of course—but the answer finally emerged from University of California Press. Most important, the Press corrected the mistake that was keeping the book out of buyers' hands.
In the later stages of my work on the book, I corrected the page proofs and prepared the index faster than anyone expected. That is why the book could be printed by Halloween, instead of by Thanksgiving. With Funnybooks sprinting off the presses, the publisher moved the publication date up a month. The problem was, whoever was responsible for putting books into retailers' warehouses didn't get the message. So, when November 28 rolled around, retailers had to tell purchasers that the book had not yet been released, which as far as they were concerned was absolutely true.
I relayed to the Press some of the complaints I was getting, along with complaints of my own, and after a few days matters were finally set to rights. "Amazon Prime" advance purchasers will get Funnybooks next Tuesday, or maybe sooner than that, and other advance purchasers will get their copies over the following few days—comfortably before Christmas, in other words. I'm still waiting for a box of author's copies to arrive, and when it does I'll start mailing about two dozen complimentary copies to people who helped me with the book.
There will be no making up the lost two and a half weeks of potential Christmas sales, of course, but I've resolved not to grumble about such things after today. The book is a reality, even if somewhat delayed, and it has turned out very well. There's plenty for me to feel happy about, and I hope my readers will feel the same.
The John Stanley Little Lulu cover above, from the October 1949 issue, came to mind a few days ago when all the trees in my neighborhood seemed to give a sigh and dump all their remaining leaves at once. Stanley continued to draw the Little Lulu covers even as he surrendered the execution of the stories to Irving Tripp and Charles Hedinger. Those covers, drawn with such assurance, and with perfect command of the limited expressive vocabulary the design of the Lulu characters permitted, are one of the great unsung comic-book pleasures. If there can be exhibits devoted to Norman Rockwell's printed Saturday Evening Post covers, why not an exhibit of John Stanley covers?
And speaking of Stanley...he is of course one of the principal characters in my new book Funnybooks.
It was officially "released" a week ago, but so far only as an ebook, even though printed copies have existed for more than a month. I still don't know why printed copies are not yet available. In the meantime, I am trying to keep my temper and my tongue in check.
There appears to be a growing backlog of advance orders, stimulated in part by a great plug by Amid Amidi on Cartoon Brew. If you plan to order the book, but just haven't gotten around to it, I'm guessing that it would help to free the book from its warehouse prison if you ordered it now through this amazon.com link.
Many of you will recall the 1985 Disney animated feature The Black Cauldron, a last gasp of the Ron Miller era before the studio fell into the hands of Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg. I recently got this message about it:
My name is Brian Martin, and I'm from Chicago. I have been a huge Disney fan all my life, and I need your help. I started a Facebook page and petition that are part of a campaign to get Disney to release their forgotten animated film, The Black Cauldron fully uncut on Blu-Ray for its 30th anniversary next year. From what I understand, 12 minutes of completed animation and music were cut from the movie by Jeffrey Katzenberg soon before its premiere. Producer Joe Hale and his wife Beverly have already given me their approvals by signing the petition I started, signing another petition started in early November by someone else in Ohio, and writing some messages on my Facebook page. They told me the uncut master negative should be somewhere in the Disney archives. If you are interested, please go to these links to sign the two petitions, like my page, and share them with others!
I can't claim to be a fan of the film or the Lloyd Alexander novels on which it is based, but if you are either, or both, or you simply don't like the idea of a film's being subjected to that kind of mutilation, these are the links to the pages that Brian mentions:
[A November 29, 2014, update: Although the print editions of Funnybooks are still listed as pre-orders, Robert Forman tells me that the Kindle edition is available now for download, for $19.49.]
Today is the official publication date for my new book Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books. Exactly what "official publication date" means in my case, I'm not sure. I haven't seen another copy of the book since my advance copy arrived on November 5, and amazon.com still shows it as not available. I've been wondering lately just how available it will ever be. All authors are paranoid, but sometimes, as the saying goes, they really are coming to get you.
It has now been more than eight months since I last heard anything from the person at University of California Press who is in charge of publicity for the book. My emails to her have gone unanswered. No one has ever asked me to suggest who should get review copies. This is in complete contrast to how UC Press managed such matters for my last book, The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney. I've always known that Funnybooks would appeal most strongly to a relatively small audience, but the people who care about its subject matter really care about it, and there are better ways to reach them than by using some standard list for review copies.
That's assuming, of course, that there will even be review copies. Over the past year, whenever the size of the print run came up in my exchanges with people at UC Press, the figure bobbed around but always seemed to settle lower. In the process, the planned initial release of Funnybooks as a standard hardcover, with dust jacket, fell away, replaced by simultaneous release of a trade paperback and an unjacketed hardcover, both bearing high prices for books of that type. I have no idea how many copies have now been printed, but that figure can't be very large.
I've been trying for months to put the most optimistic possible construction on what the Press has been doing, and to be as cooperative as possible, especially since the actual production of the book—the editing, the design—has gone very well. Many people at the Press have done their best to make Funnybooks a handsome and appealing book, and they've succeeded. It's unfortunate that other people at the Press seem determined to fit it with concrete boots.
What's happening with Funnybooks is probably an example of a recurrent phenomenon that Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly identified when they were interviewed by Chris Mautner of Comic Book Resources five years ago, about their wonderful anthology called The Toon Treasury of Classic Children's Comics. Mouly, who is the art director for The New Yorker, said: "I've had New Yorker editors—perfectly respectable, intelligent people—explain to me that, because children's literature is aimed at this specific age group, and the author takes into account the age of the reader, it can't possibly be anything other than genre literature because of those constraints." Spiegelman added: "Tell it to Lewis Carroll."
Art gave me a great blurb for Funnybooks, but UC Press, true to form, buried it in a sea of gray type on the paperback's back cover, with no mention of his extraordinary Pulitzer Prize or his status as the cartoonist with the strongest literary/intellectual credentials. The back cover was the only page I did not see in page proof, even though I asked to see it specifically.
My essential argument in Funnybooks is that the best comics for children, like the best children's books of other kinds, are worthy of repeated visits by adults who are otherwise reading books that are not accessible to children, by virtue of their vocabulary or subject matter. I could go further: I think that adults who scorn the thought of reading Carl Barks, or Lewis Carroll, are most likely stunted in their reading habits generally. I doubt that more than a handful of people in today's publishing industry would agree, and certainly UC Press' performance to date suggests that the people there who control my book's fate are not among them.
Because my publisher is stifling awareness of the book, I can't imagine that it will be around for very long. That's a shame; it's a very good book, one I'm proud of, and despite its intimidating price, I can recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone who feels even a middling interest in its subject matter. But don't dawdle too long before you buy it.
And speaking of prices: Thad Komorowski calls to my attention amazon.com's offer of an additional 30 percent off print books, an offer good through Sunday, and apparently applicable to pre-orders as well as currently available books. There's a ten-dollar limit, but ten dollars off the price of Funnybooks brings the cost of the book down to a perfectly reasonable figure. Go for it!
Actually, I'm cheating. This comic book was published not in the fall but in the summer of 1949, according to the dating code at the bottom of the first page. (That code is "498," or August 1949, but Dell comic books bearing that date were published in late June or early July. I figured that out when I was a kid.) The lead story, illustrated by Roger Armstrong, is a Thanksgiving story for sure, with Porky and Cicero talking faux-Pilgrim talk (lots of thees and thous) and their Indian adversary talking the usual pidgin ("Me choose-um bow an' arrow"). Pretty silly stuff, but it doesn't pretend to be anything more. I have no idea how it wound up being published in mid-summer, but maybe someone missed a deadline.
Bob Barrett writes about this page of Frank Frazetta drawings:
I'm curious if you are familiar with Frank Frazetta's animation art that
he created for the various funny animal comics published by
Standard/Nedor/Better publications. Frank always referred to this work
as animation rather than funny animal art. What caused me to query you
about this is this piece of Frazetta art that I just added it to my
I became a Frazetta fan when I discovered "Dan Brand and Tipi" in Durango Kid Comics when I was thirteen and I began to look for comics
featuring his art after that. I was not familiar with his animation art
until after I returned to America from Germany and my discharge from the
Army in 1962. At that time I had begun to buy comics from Bill
Thailing. When he discovered my interest in Frazetta comic art he asked
me if I was interested in his funny animal comics; he had tried to
interest other Frazetta collectors in it but they weren't interested. I
told him that I would buy every Frazetta funny animal comic that he had!
I discovered that I really like Frazetta's animation art and, to this
day, prefer his comic-book work to his later painting and illustration
career. And I am especially drawn to his animation art.
During one of
my conversations with Frank he told me that he had once been contacted
by the Walt Disney Studio, asking him if he would be interested in
coming to work for them.
I questioned him about when this might have occurred, and he said that it
was during the time that he worked for Standard—1947 through 1949. I
asked him how Disney had found out about him and he didn't know, except
that he said thatone of the other Disney artists who
was drawing animation for the Standard funny animal comic books might have
showed his work to the people at Disney. I asked him if he had been
tempted to accept their invitation and he replied that he was flattered
but had no interest in moving to Los Angeles—he would have been
nineteen to twenty-one when he was doing the animation art, and he was
still living at home, was deeply involved in baseball, at nineteen he
had been named Most Valuable Player of the Parade Ground League in
Brooklyn with a .487 batting average. Also, he had a girl friend that he
didn't want to leave.
This page I just added to my collection shows, at the top and middle,
the character of Snowman, which he dreamed up in his early teens. He
created several booklets of Snowman's adventures; one was adapted by comic-book
artist John Giunta. Frank penciled and Giunta inked, and it was
published in Tally Ho Comics No. 1, December 1944. The other figures on
the page are good examples of his animation art. I feel really lucky to
have been able to acquire this page, as originals from this early are
quite difficult to find.
Frazetta's animation art for comic books has been reprinted in at least two books: Small Wonders (1991) and Frazetta Funny Stuff (2012).
Adam Gopnik, a staff writer for The New Yorker, reviews in the November 17 issue a new biography of Bob Hope by Richard Zoglin. I usually enjoy Gopnik's essays, but this one is a little odd. For one thing, he writes about Hope as a movie and TV performer but makes no mention of Hope's career in radio, and it was in radio that Hope's persona, as an aggressive verbal comedian, a joke teller who barely paused for breath, was most distinct. But most relevant here, Gopnik makes a comparison that I immediately rejected.
The real parallel to Hope—the great American comedian whose career most closely resembles his—is, of course, Bugs Bunny. Like Hope, he arrived in Hollywood in the late thirties and became a huge star with the war. Like Hope, he was usually paired with a more inward character who loves to sing (Daffy Duck is Bugs’s Bing, though blustery rather than cool), and, like Hope, his appeal rises entirely from the limitless brashness and self-confidence with which he approaches even the most threatening circumstances. Together, they are the highest expression of the smart-aleck sensibility in American laughter. Their fame in wartime may have something to do with the way that, as A. J. Liebling documents, the American Army itself was essentially an urban creature dispatched to deserts and jungles: Bugs, with his Bronx-Brooklyn accent, has somehow been sent out there in the countryside, among the hunters, as Hope ends up in the sands of Morocco with no weapon but street-corner sass.
No, no. That "of course" is the giveaway, an attempt to coerce us into embracing a statement that everything we know about Bugs Bunny and Bob Hope implores us to repudiate. Bugs was cool, Crosby was cool; Daffy was hot, Hope was hot. Bugs was Crosby, Daffy was Hope. If, as Gopnik writes, Daffy was "blustery"—and he was that, in the Chuck Jones pairings especially—any comparison with Crosby is immediately disqualified.
Perhaps some charitable soul should send Gopnik a DVD of the best Bugs Bunny cartoons and a CD sampling of the Bob Hope radio shows, taking care to include shows that include such audio equivalents of cartoon characters as Jerry Colonna and Vera Vague. Then he might apologize for such a boneheaded comparison.
An advance copy of my latest book arrived from the publisher last Wednesday evening, just as I was about to leave on a short wedding-anniversary trip. It looks very good, and I think most people who order it will be very happy with it. Not with the price, maybe, which is a little higher than I would like, but there's nothing I can do about that, and the price is in line with what University of California Press is asking for other books of similar heft. As I've learned, university presses are their own publishing world, a fact with advantages (more care in the production of the book, in everything from copy editing to design) and disadvantages (smaller print runs and correspondingly higher prices). I think that in this case the advantages clearly win. There is considerably more bang for the buck in Funnybooks than in—I started to write, "comparable books," but, in fact, there are no comparable books.
Copies should be shipping from amazon.com and other online retailers well before the end of the month, in plenty of time for Christmas.
Last summer, Justin Moyer wrote a piece in the Washington Post titled "All That Jazz Isn't All That Great," the gist of which was that jazz was, and is, a greatly overrated art form. It stirred up a lot of comment, most of it hostile. He listed five reasons for his negative judgment on jazz, but the one that I found most interesting was the third, "Jazz Stopped Evolving."
Back in ancient times—that is, the early 1960s—when I was a Northwestern undergraduate, I listened to a lot of jazz, along with classical music and folk music (and comedy albums by Lenny Bruce and Tom Lehrer). Sometimes, too, I'd venture into Chicago to hear musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Herbie Mann at the Birdhouse, a Near North Side jazz club that didn't serve alcohol and so was hospitable to underage college students. Not that I was sophisticated, not at all, but rock 'n roll was still emerging from its larval stage then, and what you listened to and liked a lot in high school—in my case, Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers—was not yet what you wanted to be identified with in college.
I remember very well when one of my fraternity brothers, who was from L.A. and relatively advanced in his jazz listening, played for some of us an Ornette Coleman LP called "The Shape of Jazz to Come." As Moyer writes, accurately, "Coleman's singular vision ... included atonality, a lack of traditional time signatures and uninhibited solo improvisation." It sounded pretty weird. We all approached Coleman gingerly, but I bought one of his LPs soon after, and more than one LP by another rule-breaker, John Coltrane. I now own boxed sets of CDs by both musicians. I don't play them all that often, but I like having them around.
Moyer says, accurately as best I can tell from my limited exposure to today's music, that there's not much difference between the avant-garde jazz I was listening to fifty years ago and the music that avant-garde jazz musicians are playing now. "It's as if jazz, music premised on aesthetic liberation, no longer has anything to push against."
Years after I graduated,, I talked about jazz occasionally with my older friend Martin Williams, my collaborator on A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics and a man widely acknowledged as the very best American jazz critic. I'd found my interest in jazz diminishing after college, and I once asked Martin, what am I missing? His answer was, essentially, that I wasn't missing anything, that jazz had stopped in its tracks. He had assembled a very popular Smithsonian set of jazz LPs, released in 1973, that traced the music's evolution from early in the century up through the sixties. When that set was reissued on CD in 1987, he added only one track, by the World Saxophone Quartet. Martin died in 1992, but I doubt that he would have found much more to admire in later jazz recordings if he had lived longer.
There's always the hazard when you write about the arts, the popular arts especially, that you'll either lapse into nostalgia for the good old days or embrace really bad new stuff just because it's new. I think Martin Williams was too intellectually disciplined to fall into either trap, and so I attach considerable weight to his skepticism about latter-day jazz. I don't know that he would have agreed completely with Justin Moyer, but I doubt that he would have disagreed strenuously.
I suspect that what is true of jazz has a rough parallel in the state of studio animation, the big difference being, of course, that the fruits of studio animation's stasis are mostly anodyne rather than abrasive. Increasingly, trying to keep up with computer-animated features seems as pointless as following the career of a pseudo-jazz musician like Kenny G. The feature cartoons coming from Pixar, Disney, and DreamWorks Animation—not to mention their lesser competitors—invite comparison not with the great Disney animated features of seventy years ago, but with the "smooth jazz" that is background noise in elevators and doctors' offices. They're that sleek and empty.
And so what? It's tempting to search for progress in the trajectory of every art form, and certainly studio animation's trajectory from the twenties on into the fifties can easily be viewed as one of steady and often dramatic change for the better. The Disney shorts of the thirties, the early features, the Warner Bros. and MGM shorts of the forties, even the earliest UPA efforts—it's perfectly reasonable to see in those films a thrilling expansion of the medium's expressive possibilities. That's certainly what I see in them, and that's why I've written books about them. And now, after a long lull that lasted from the fifties through the eighties, it's understandable why those of us who care about studio animation should want to see in computer-animated features, Pixar's especially, a revival of the upward thrust of earlier decades.
It's unfortunate that my Kenny G. analogy is more to the point, but there's nothing shameful about that. Other art forms, like jazz, don't fit the steady-progress model any better than animation does. The very idea of progress can be a snare and a delusion. In jazz, in classical music, in modern art, in theater, creative people have often embraced bad new ideas, then tried to find an exit from their mistakes without simply repeating what has already been done by other artists. Less creative people are, of course, only too happy to repeat what they've borrowed from their betters. Maybe that pattern has predominated more in recent years, or maybe it just seems that way, with every success or failure magnified by the huge sums involved. The financial rewards today for successful repetition can be very large indeed, in animation especially, even though the films are almost invariably insipid.
I watched Disney's Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949) again recently, in its new Blu-ray incarnation, in preference to a first viewing on streaming video of any number of new CGI features. I didn't give much thought to the possibility that I was wallowing in nostalgia. I knew I was making the same sensible choice that I make when I put Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" in the CD player in preference to just about anything I've heard by contemporary musicians who present their work as "jazz," whether of the Ornette Coleman or Kenny G. variety. But I'm sure there'll come a time when a new CGI feature will draw me to a theater and I will leave that theater happy to have seen something both new and good. Maybe it'll even happen soon, with, say, Big Hero 6.
No, I'm not thinking about today's elections, which I try to think about as little as possible.
With Funnybooks just a few days away from publication, I've been thinking about my book, and about such books—history books—in general. As in my two books that preceded it, I've written the preface (which I've posted here) in the first person, but the body of the book, the succession of chapters beginning with the introduction and ending with the epilogue, is in the third person, a convention that the novelist E. L. Doctorow addressed a few years ago in The Atlantic:
Insofar as any piece of writing has a voice, the impersonal, objective voice of the narrative historian is his stock-in-trade. The presumption of factuality underlies the amassed documentation historians live by, and so we accept that voice. It is the voice of authority.
But to be conclusively objective is to have no cultural identity, to exist in such existential solitude as to have, in fact, no place in the world.
Historians research as many sources as they can, but they decide what is relevant to their enterprise and what isn’t. We should recognize the degree of creativity in this profession that goes beyond intelligent, assiduous scholarship. “There are no facts in themselves,” Nietzche says. “For a fact to exist we must first introduce meaning.” Historiography, like fiction, organizes its data in demonstration of meaning. The cultural matrix in which the historian works will condition his thinking; he will speak for his time and place by the facts he brings to light and the facts he leaves in darkness, the facts he brings into being and the facts that remain unformed, unborn. Recorded history undergoes a constant process of revision, and the process is not just a matter of discovering additional evidence to correct the record. “However remote in time events may seem to be, every historical judgment refers to present needs and situations,” the philosopher and historian Benedetto Croce says in his book History as the Story of Liberty. This is why history has to be written and rewritten from one generation to another.
Doctorow's remarks struck me with particular force when I read them again recently, because in researching and writing Funnybooks I brought many facts about the Dell comics to light—you'll learn much more about Walt Kelly, for instance, than you knew before—but I decided to leave many others in darkness, and not simply out of concern for the book's length. The work of any number of artists and writers didn't seem to invite the serious examination that was so rewarding where, say, Carl Barks was concerned.
I do write in Funnybooks about Gaylord DuBois and Jesse Marsh, to cite a writer and an artist I've found increasingly impressive and interesting, but I say nothing about the highly prolific writer Paul S. Newman and almost nothing about the artist Tom Gill. I can't associate their names with comic books that I think repay an educated reader's time, comics that are, to use Doctorow's word, relevant. I mention Gil Turner and Harvey Eisenberg, two "funny animal" cartoonists I like, but only in passing. Roger Armstrong, another good "funny animal" man, turns up much more often, but as a reliable witness rather than as a cartoonist whose work invites reading and, especially, re-reading.
Other artists and writers filled many pages of the Dell comic books, but without making an impression on me. At least some of those artists and writers made an impression on other people, though, and perhaps, in the "constant process of revision," there will come a time when even, say, Ed Volke will be elevated into the pantheon.
Who was Ed Volke? Well, that's sort of the point, isn't it? You'll just have to read the book.
Thad Komorowski reminds me that thanks to amazon.com's "look inside" feature, you can read part of Funnybooks online before deciding if you want to spring for the book itself. You can access the preview by either going to amazon's page for the book or through a Google books link.
I've posted the seond of my two joint interviews with the great Disney animators at this link.
Thomas and Johnston's favorite director, Wilfred Jackson, at work on Cinderella (1950) with Mary Blair, one of several designers (Eyvind Earle was another) whose styling they admired but found problematic.
...and from two of the great cartoonists, Carl Barks (top) and John Stanley, who are among the principal characters in my new book, Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books. That book will be published officially on November 28.
According to amazon.com, another book by a great cartoonist, in the oven for quite a while, will finally arrive in my mailbox today. That's Volume 3 of The Complete Syndicated Pogo: Evidence to the Contrary, by Walt Kelly. Its contents: all of Kelly's daily strips and Sunday pages from the prime period of 1953-54. If you haven't already ordered that book, do so now, without delay.
I've posted a review of Garry Apgar's important new book, A Mickey Mouse Reader, that also includes comments on a couple of Fantagraphics' newest Mickey Mouse (Floyd Gottfredson) and Uncle Scrooge (Carl Barks) reprint volumes. You'll find that review at this link.
The Rescuers (1977) was still in production when Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston sat for an interview. This photo was taken around that time, as part of the publicity for the film. Wolfgang Reitherman, the director, is at the right, pointing to story sketches. The others are, from left, Dave Michener, Ted Berman, Johnston (kneeling), Art Stevens, Don Bluth, and Thomas.
Interviews: Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, 1976
With Milt Gray's help, I recorded hundreds of interviews during work on my book Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age. I've wanted to post more of those interviews here, since I think many of them make exceptionally enjoyable reading for people even modestly interested in my book's subject matter. One obstacle has always been the sheer drudgery required in preparing the interviews for publication, especially when they exist only as typescripts and not as computer files, but I think I've found ways to reduce that drudgery to a tolerable level.
The first interviews I've prepared under my new regimen are two with the great Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, the first from 1976 (with Milt Gray) and the second from 1987. I'm posting the 1976 interview today, at this link. The 1987 interview—which I've almost finished editing and laying out for publication here—will follow in a few days.
The 1976 interview took place during a long low point in the Disney studio's animation history, a low point memorialized in Steve Hulett's immensely enjoyable series of articles on Cartoon Brew under the umbrella title "Mouse in Transition." The series has reached its eleventh installment; it is supposed to be appearing on a weekly schedule, but unfortunately isn't. Each new installment is well worth waiting for.
In editing the Thomas and Johnston interviews, I was reminded again of a passage on page 18 of The Illusion of Life that has always bothered me. It's in a part of the book where Frank and Ollie write about how humans and animals communicate through universally understood actions:
The actor is trained to know these symbols of communication because they are his tools in trade. Basically, the animator is the actor in animated films. He is many other things as well; however, in his efforts to communicate his ideas, acting becomes his most important device. But the animator has a special problem. On the stage, all the ... symbols are accompanied by some kind of personal magnetism that can communicate the feelings and attitudes equally as well as the action itself. There is a spirit in this kind of communication that is extremely alive and vital. However, wonderful as the world of animation is, it is too crude to capture completely that kind of subtlety. [Emphasis supplied.]
As I've said before, most recently in a February 3, 2012, post, my thought when I read this for a second or third time back in the '90s was, well, OK, if that's the case, why bother? If there are absolute limits to what you can achieve in character animation—if what you're able to do will inevitably seem crude compared with the subtlety of live acting—why not find some better way to spend your time?
In the past, there was an obvious answer: fantasy, as presented through hand-drawn character animation, could be more convincing on the screen than the clumsy live-action equivalent. What happens on the screen in Pinocchio is simply more believable than what happens in a live-action fantasy like The Thief of Bagdad or, dare I say it, The Wizard of Oz. In many recent movies, though, computer animation has been used very effectively to sand away live-action fantasy's rough edges. In such movies, the boundary between live action and animation has been all but erased. Because the cool perfection of computer-generated imagery commands belief as even the best hand-drawn animated fantasy never could, the computer has destroyed hand-drawn animation's advantage as a vehicle for fantasy.
If you accept Thomas and Johnston's statement about character animation's limitations—which they made, of course, long before computer animation reached anything like its current state of refinement—there's no reason to lament hand-drawn animation's subordination to CGI, or its impending demise (except as it survives in television animation that makes no pretense of inviting a suspension of disbelief). Certainly there's no need for distress if you believe, as Thomas and Johnston often seem to argue in their book, that the dull, literal animation of the Disney features of the 1970s is the best that hand-drawn animation can offer,
If, however, you believe with me that animation of the kind that Frank Thomas contributed to the Disney features twenty and thirty years earlier—for example, his fantastically subtle and brilliantly caricatured animation of Captain Hook—is not only missing from all contemporary computer animation but is beyond its reach, you may not be so sanguine about animation's future.
Adjusting to that new address, after many years with Comcast, has consumed too much time, and this site has gone neglected for too long. I have several things in the oven, including a couple of joint interviews with Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston from 1976 and 1987, and reviews of some significant new books. Working on this site is very enjoyable for me, especially now that Funnybooks is finished and I need other ways to exercise my writing muscles, so I hope to be back to posting on a semi-regular schedule very soon.
According to amazon.com, the publication date for Funnybooks has moved up about a month, to November 28. The publisher's website is not quite so specific, settling for "November 2014." In any case, the book will be in print (or in pixels, as an e-book) in about a month. Its price remains high for a paperback, I think, and I wish it were a little lower. That may happen yet, at least for purchases through online retailers like amazon, if there are enough advance orders.
It occurred to me that a preview of Funnybooks might be useful to prospective purchasers, and that my preface might serve that purpose. Many readers skip prefaces, and that can be unfortunate; a preface allows an author to speak in the first person, which he may not be able to do in the body of the book without getting in the way of his subject matter. I wrote my preface at the very end of work on the book, and it accurately reflects my sentiments after many months of reading comic books and writing about them. Here it is:
I am sure there were people in mid-twentieth century America who began reading comic books after they reached adulthood, but there cannot have been many such people compared with the millions for whom comics were among their earliest reading experiences. I was one such child, many years ago; I “read” aloud Walt Kelly stories in Animal Comics to my stuffed animals before I could make out the words. My childhood attachment to comic books was unusually strong. I dreamed of being a cartoonist, and I can remember clearly when and where I first saw many of my comic books, on a newsstand or in a variety store or at a friend’s home, even though my memories of my teachers and classmates have dimmed almost to the point of vanishing.
Memories like mine are at once so commonplace and so particular to the person doing the remembering that there can be no point in devoting much attention to them here. What really matters about comic books, especially old comics like the ones from the 1940s and 1950s that are the principal subjects of this book, is whether they repay reading today, and not just by elderly people who want to bathe in nostalgia.
Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books is my answer to that question, and my answer is, of course, yes. A qualified yes, to be sure, since most comic books, from any period, have very little to recommend them. At two times, separated by about thirty years, I devoted hundreds of hours to reading and re-reading old comics, trying to sift out the best of them. The first time was when the late Martin Williams and I were choosing stories to include in A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics (1982). I made my second and more intensive survey when I was writing this book. In both cases, nostalgia wound up playing no role in choosing stories to reprint in the Smithsonian book or write about in this one.
When I was a boy, I read every kind of comic book, as most children did, but the comics that attracted me most strongly, and that I read and re-read, were produced by Western Printing & Lithographing Company and published under the Dell label. “Dell Comics Are Good Comics” was the company’s slogan in the 1950s. Not every Dell comic was good, by any means, and certainly there were comic books from other publishers that repaid multiple readings; but, in work on this book, as when I was a child, I became aware of how distinct the Dell comics were from those of every other publisher, and how much better the best Dell comics were than almost all other comic books.
My initial plan was to cast my net wider, but eventually Funnybooks became a history of the Dell comic books, concentrating on the years before comics of all kinds fell under the censor’s axe and with only a nod to great cartoonists like Harvey Kurtzman and Will Eisner, whose work was for other publishers. Kurtzman and Eisner, and other artists like them, have already been the subjects of books, in some cases many books, but there has been no book like this one. At that, my book is only a partial history of Dell and Western Printing, so there are names missing from the index that many devotees of the Dell titles will expect to find, or to find mentioned more often. But although Dell published the work of many writers and artists who deserve to be admired, it published only a few whose work demands to be read, Carl Barks (Donald Duck), John Stanley (LittleLulu), and Walt Kelly chief among them.
Dell never did more than dabble in superheroes, the genre that for many people has long defined what is meant by the term “comic book.” The absence of superheroes was a large part of Dell’s appeal for me. When I was a boy I never cared for any comics of that kind, except for a brief infatuation with the light-hearted Captain Marvel titles. More recently, I have come to appreciate the tongue-in-cheek quality of many of Will Eisner’s “Spirit” stories and Stan Lee’s early-1960s stories with the Marvel superheroes. But superhero comic books in general, and especially those with the more serious superheroes, like Superman and Batman, have always seemed to me hopelessly inferior to the best comics with “funny animals” like Donald Duck. I found a clue as to why I have felt that way in what a respected science-fiction writer has written of Superman: “He is our universal longing for perfection, for wisdom and power used in service of the human race.”
That is true, surely. But in the twentieth century, that longing for perfection was expressed not just in a benign form through Superman and the superheroes that followed him, each of them sharing a larger or smaller piece of Superman’s perfection, but also in odious totalitarian ideologies that pursued perfection through mass murder. The longing for perfection is a deeply suspect longing, even when it comes cloaked in the innocent wish-fulfillment that the superheroes have always offered.
I have always strongly preferred comic books with characters of a different kind—funny characters most of them, cartoon animals many of them, who on the rare occasions when they aspire to wisdom and power invariably reveal, with comical flourishes, their hopeless imperfectibility. Characters, that is, very much like their readers.
September 2014: Being puzzled by Deja and Keane, the difference between Disney and "Disney."
August 2014: More on the Dell pinups, vintage photos from my 1971 visit to Disneyland.
July 2014: The Dell Comics Club, a batch of book reviews, the passing of Sody Clampett, a better picture of Carl Barks, "internal" versus "instrumental" motives in the animation industry.
June 2014: The Fairest One of All reviewed, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Carl Barks's first published work, Walt and Diane Disney in Chicago in 1943, more on "concept art," the myth of the missing Disney credits, Felidae.
May 2014: Disney's Grand Tour, "concept art," Little Lulu's cinematic debut.
April 2014: Sick Little Monkeys, a Funnybooks update, a memorial celebration for Michael Sporn, Walt Disney's skeptical supervisor at Kansas City Film Ad.
March 2014: John Stanley's 100th birthday, remembering Michael Sporn and Robin Allan, seeing Frozen and Saving Mr. Banks.
August 2011: New collections of classic Disney comics, the Corny Cole interview, Chuck Jones enshrined at a casino, Dave Hand on ones and twos, is innocence bliss when watching cartoons?
July 2011: Mystery men at Disney's Hyperion studio, The Illusionist.
June 2011: Inking at Disney's in 1931, the Fred Kopietz interview.
May 2011: New Disney books, problems with interviews, the passing of the great collector Bill Blackbeard.
April 2011: More on Walt's church in Chicago and the Dumbo Roll-A-Book, Lynn Karp interviewed.
March 2011: John Hubley and Milt Kahl interviewed, Roger Armstrong remembers life at the Lantz studio in 1944-45, Walt Disney visits Evanston, Illinois, on the Fourth of July 1957.
February 2011: Tim Walker and Mark Kausler, the Bob McKimson interview and more McKimson matter, the Huffington Post stirs up a storm.
January 2011: Flogging the Dell/Disney comic books, Tangled, potpourris of items about Walt Disney and Bob Clampett and new books, Glen Keane speaks about Tangled in French, a "Flying Gauchito" mystery, Walt meets Princess Margaret and suffers under a double standard.
November 2010: Carl Stalling on acetate, lost Laugh-O-grams found, Børge Ring on Alice in Wonderland, Tim Susanin's book.
October 2010: Books: Jim Korkis's Vault of Walt, Craig Yoe's Felix, John Canemaker's Two Guys Named Joe and J. B. Kaufman's South of the Border with Disney.
September 2010: John Benson on Avatar and IMAX 3-D, Mike Maltese and his Bugs Bunny painting, Craig Yoe writes, Satoshi Kon, The Ducktators in the flesh, Chronicle Books' animation volumes.
July 2010: Toy Story 3, Milt Gray's web comic strip, sad news about Roy Rogers and Harvey Pekar, my 1997 interview with John K., more on the mysterious Mortimer Mouse, reprinted comic books.
June 2010: Dave Smith retires, more on the Dumbo Roll-A-Book, Barks on a T-shirt, Waking Sleeping Beauty.
May 2010: "Mickey Mouse" and D-Day, animation: the delusion of life, Børge Ring on Jack Kinney, my visit to Moscow and Saint Petersburg, George Sherman's Barks painting, more on the Dumbo Roll-A-Book.
April 2010:How to Train Your Dragon, Carl Barks tells how he worked, Fantasia and the fundamentalists
March 2010: More on the Dumbo Roll-A-Book, questions for Walt Disney, the "family tree" of animation, a 1967 gathering of pioneers at Montreal, Dumbo's premiere, Dumbo in print, Walt's adventures in the Ivy League, Fess Parker remembered.
February 2010: The mysterious Dumbo Roll-A-Book, Oscars and Annies, Disney and Tolkien.
January 2010: More on The Princess and the Frog, Kurtzman's Humbug, Dumbo's crows, The Animated Man in Italy, Richard Todd and Walt Disney on the set.
December 2009:The Princess and the Frog and Fantastic Mr. Fox, a cel fire at the Mintz studio, Richard Todd, Roy Edward Disney, Hal Sintzenich's diaries, more hot air from an "archivist."
November 2009: On the sidewalk with Charlie Mintz, a visit to Saint Louis, when Fantasia spread out, on the barricades with Art Babbitt.
October 2009: "Sincerity," Ward Kimball photographs R. Crumb, Walt Kelly writes to Walt Disney, losing illusions in today's Hollywood animation business, more on Walt Disney at Harvard (and Yale), Art Spiegelman in Arkansas, the Walt Disney Family Museum opens its doors.
September 2009: What Walt Disney was doing in London in 1935 and New York in 1940, George Winkler and Andrew Stone and Charlie Mintz, Walt Disney and Norman Rockwell, Dr. Seuss' advertising films, Li'l Eight Ball's disappearance from comic books, shipboard with Walt and family in 1949, the curious case of Mortimer Mouse.
August 2009: Carl Barks on exhibit in Baltimore, the mystery of Barks's Donald Duck, Lillian Disney speaks in public, early omens on The Princess and the Frog, Classic Children's Comics, Walt Disney in Ireland, home again from a long summer journey.
June 2009: Taking a summer break, Egghead and Elmer, more on Sita Sings the Blues, Pixar's Up, the role of words and drawings in early Disney story work.
May 2009: Reading the funnies in bulk, Keith Lango's ideas about "visual harmony," Walt Disney goes to Harvard, John Canemaker goes to Kansas City, Sita Sings the Blues, Disney and Columbia, fictitious "Walt Disneys" on stage and screen, David Gerstein's blog, Monsters vs. Aliens, more on Dave Hand, Milt Kahl as "the animation Michelangelo."
April 2009: Easter greetings from Warner Bros. Cartoons, Børge Ring on David Hand, Ken Annakin, Dick Huemer, Floyd Norman, Ferguson's flypaper sequence revisited, Disney's walled garden, Don Bluth, the Walt Disney Family Museum, Bob Clampett's secret life.
March 2009: Walt Kelly comics from Fairy Tale Parade, Chuck Jones on TCM, Walt Disney at Dumbo's premiere, Emil Flohri, Coraline, Watchmen, in the Disney music rooms in 1931, a case of mistaken identity, ten years of Hollywood Cartoons.
February 2009: Acting in animation, with a riveting memory of Bill Tytla, Coraline, 3-D pro and con, cartoon cocktails, the first Disney annual report, Marceline faces from Walt Disney's time, a Marceline myth.
January 2009: "The Three Little Pigs" as drawn by Walt Kelly, Ted Eshbaugh's studio in 1931, "card check" in 1941 and 2009, The Tale of Despereaux, Walt Disney sails from Chile to New York on the Santa Clara.
December 2008:The Spirit on the screen, cartoon directors' Christmas cards, trying to identify a mystery man, books: Spirited Away, Popeye, and The Animated Man, Bolt and Madagascar 2, Dave Hilberman's FBI file.
November 2008: Back from Italy, live-action Disney on Turner Classic Movies.
October 2008:The Wall Street Journal on Pixar and Disney,Walt at the keyboard, Chuck Jones and Eddie Selzer, Chuck at MGM, "Directors and Directions," salvaging Disney's California Adventure, Walt Disney's attitude toward women, "Of Cabbages and Kleins," The Perfect American as novel and opera, on the set of Invitation to the Dance.
September 2008: Visiting J. R. Bray, Ben Sharpsteen and his museum, Elias Disney in his own words, the ancestral Disney lands in Ontario, a book ban in Burbank.
August 2008: Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising remembered, Michael Sporn's role on The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, more on Wertham, Sporn DVDs.
July 2008: More Looney Tunes on DVD, WALL•E and Kung Fu Panda, Walt Disney's stump, Bill Tytla's voice, Disney anniversaries, Wertham's locked vault, Schulz and Peanuts demolished, more on Walt and Dolores.
May-June 2008: Walt Disney's Kansas City building, Walt and polo (and polo-related deaths), Japanese features, Walt and Dolores Del Rio, late-period Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett in Canada, Walt Disney meets Robert Taylor in 1938 and visits Marceline and Saint Louis in 1946, the post-modern Goofy, The Colored Cartoon.
April 2008: The Jones-Avery letter, what Walt Disney really thought about Goofy, the "Censored 11," Borge Ring on Hans Perk, remembering Ollie Johnston, Two Days in the Life: Kansas City, 1922, more on Walt Disney's 1922 want ads, Walt's skeptical supervisor at Kansas City Film Ad, Bob Clampett and Ollie Johnston share a table, the Schulz kidnaping, Nick Cross and The Waif of Persephone.
March 2008: Walt Disney's want ads in 1922, Dick Huemer's Buck O'Rue, A Day in the Life: Disney, January 1930 and February 1927, A Day in the Life: Walt Kelly, 1955, The Animated Man in trade paper, Walt Disney meets Yma Sumac and visits Atlanta, responding to complaints about negative criticism, Bob Clampett at work, "What Would Bob Do?"
February 2008: Walt Disney and Joan Bennett in 1942, an interview with Elias and Flora Disney, debate about Buckaroo Bugs, Emery Hawkins at Lantz, Walt Disney in England, Carl Barks's first issue of Uncle Scrooge, Jim Bodrero interview, photos of Warner story man Lloyd Turner, remembering Roger Armstrong.
January 2008: Dell comic books, Ward Kimball, Chuck Jones, Joe Grant and hero worship, more on writing for animation (and why some people spread falsehoods about it), Walt Disney's 1934 trip to Hawaii, Hanna-Barbera celebrated in a book, Bob Clampett, Satoshi Kon, more on the voices of Walt's Alice.
December 2007: Writing for animation, Margaret O'Brien and Walt Disney's Alice, Jack Zander, more on UPA, Rod Scribner at work, Borge Ring, a "mystery studio," Byron Haskin and Disney's Treasure Island, more on Coal Black, Walt and Lillian on the town, revisiting Raggedy Ann & Andy and Wizards, Satoshi Kon's budgets.
November 2007:Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs, Mickey's birthplace in New York, the UPA book, the Michael Sporn retrospective at MoMA, the ideas that interviews can stimulate.
October 2007: Carl Stalling interviewed, Dick Huemer remembered, more on Walt Disney and Zorro, the controversy over the Schulz biography, Joe Penner and the "Agony, agony!" catchphrase, Walt and The Art Spirit, Walt in Hawaii, the Ottawa International Animation Festival, The Jungle Book revisited.
August 2007: Walt and the librarians, independent animators, the mystery of Walt's Goldwater button solved, Diane Disney Miller blasts Neal Gabler, Paprika, interviews with Clarence Nash, Jim Macdonald, and Billy Bletcher, Pete Emslie's guidelines for animal characters, Ratatouille.
July 2007: More on Harry Reichenbach, Walt Disney and Igor Stravinsky, Surf'sUp, Walt at Smoke Tree Ranch, Dave Hilberman, The Iron Giant revisited, Michael Sporn and Walter Lantz on DVD, Ratatouille.
June 2007: More on Walt Disney's Goldwater button, more on the flypaper sequence, Roger Armstrong, Disney in Deutschland, Ratatouille, Walt and Zorro, more on Walt and T. H. White, Harry Reichenbach and Steamboat Willie, the auctioning of Carl Barks's estate.
May 2007: UPA wars on the blogs, Ferguson's flypaper sequence, Walt Disney's employment contract, Harry Reichenbach, Disney art at Montreal, Walt writes to T. H. White, selling The Animated Man in L.A.
April 2007:The Animated Man, Fergy ruffs, Meet the Robinsons.
March 2007:The Animated Man, Cartoon Brew Films, a Cock Robin mosaic and documents, a Dumbo essay, the Goldwater button again, Walt and the space program.
February 2007: More on writing v. drawing, Paul Hindemith meets Walt Disney, Fantasia, Van Beuren dolls, Bob Clampett and Edgar Bergen.
January 2007: Walt's Goldwater button, Neal Gabler's errors, writing v. drawing cartoon stories, a Disney exhibition at Paris, Happy Feet.
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