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MichaelBarrier.com Exploring the World of Animation and Comic Art

"What's New" Archives: April 2006

April 24, 2006:

PIXAR: Exceptionally interesting piece in today's Wall Street Journal about Pixar's forthcoming feature Cars and the merchandising of its characters. Reading it, I realized why I've found it increasingly difficult to take Pixar seriously. It's not that Pixar makes children's films. It's that Pixar, and John Lasseter in particular, are wedded to the idea of making one kind of children's film, over and over again, a film in which the characters are toys or might as well be. Look at the still from Cars below and the accompanying photo of toys based on the film's characters—hard to tell the difference, isn't it?

A few excerpts from the Journal article::

Cars still and toysWhen Pixar Animation Studios director John Lasseter told Walt Disney Co. several years ago that he was making a computer-animated movie about cars, there was much excitement. While Disney has cornered the market for girls with the multibillion-dollar Princess line, relatively few of its characters in recent years have appealed to boys. ... Next weekend, retail shelves will start filling with everything from "Cars" racetracks to lunchboxes, cereal and wheelie shoes. ...

Mr. Lasseter has long played a central role in bringing his animated stars to life through toys. When his first feature-directing effort, "Toy Story" came out more than a decade ago, he spotted a kid at an airport grasping a cowboy doll of the character Woody. "It hit me that this character wasn't mine anymore. It belonged to that kid," Mr. Lasseter says. "In every movie now, I think of that little boy and what that character meant to him."

For "Cars," Mr. Lasseter pushed carts full of toys into early meetings with Disney's consumer-products team to help brainstorm on product lines. The 49-year-old animator is a big fan of Mattel Inc.'s Hot Wheels die-cast vehicles, and he brought along some from his own collection. "I wanted the merchandising to be clever and above all, high quality," Mr. Lasseter says. ...

For future movies, Mr. Lasseter has even bigger ambitions. With Pixar a part of Disney, he says he wants to tap other parts of the empire with plans, for instance, to build theme-park rides to come out at the same time as his movies. Mr. Lasseter also is plotting to build Pixar franchises with sequels to past movies. Mr. Lasseter won't say which movie will be first, but the "Toy Story" franchise is likely to be a strong contender.

April 21, 2006:

TIVO ALERT: From J. J. Sedelmaier: "Just a reminder that Saturday Night Live/NBC will be doing a 'Best Of Saturday TV Funhouse Cartoons' April 29th (yup, next sat nite). We've animated The Ambiguously Gay Duo hosting the show and interacting with the cast. It's the first time in almost 4 years that there's been NEW AGD animation ! check you listings and get ready for a romp!!"

The most interesting question: Will SNL's nasty Disney parody/satire of a couple of weeks ago get another airing as part of this all-cartoon show? Or have Disney's lawyers already hand-delivered a few stiff letters? I'd bet on the latter.

SOTS: Can anything be less surprising than that Robert Iger has decided to keep Song of the South under wraps for a few more years? Perhaps Iger remembered how the "don't ask don't tell" controversy defined the early months of the Clinton presidency, and he wanted to be sure that the opening months of his own regime were not disfigured in the same way. It wouldn't be enough for him to defend Song of the South as not racist, any more than it was enough for Bill Clinton to defend the right of gays to serve their country. When a great many people have a vested interest in a particular conclusion—and certainly a great many people have a vested interest in the supposed racism of Song of the South—it's unrealistic to believe that even the most persuasive arguments will get in their way.

April 20, 2006:

HOLLYWOOD CARTOONS: The British animator Ali Matar offers some thoughts about my book, and about "literal" animation in particular, on that feedback page.

April 13, 2006:

SORRY FOR THE SILENCE...: But Walt Disney (my biography, that is) has been consuming a lot of my time again. Speaking of Walt, Galen Fott writes to mention that his website, mentioned in the April 2 item below, now includes a photo of Walt and Clarence Nash performing on the "Wormwood Forest" radio show.

COMICS MASTERS, CONT'D: Eddie Fitzgerald writes in response to Jeet Heer's comments below on the "Masters of American Comics" museum show:

"The current generation of cartoonists is NOT the best we've ever had. Arguably it's the worst. Panter's best work was in his paintings ('Elvis Zombie' and the first Raw cover), not in his nihilistic, fragmented comics. Chris Ware's work is cold as ice. Brrrr! Crumb is the real article but he's one man and one man does not a best generation make.

"If I were picking artists for the exhibition I'd choose on the basis of excellence and insight. By insight I mean how much additional insight we would gain by seeing the large original as opposed to the small printed version. Kirby's a terrific artist, but seeing the work large didn't add much to what I remembered from the comic books. The Herriman originals were, on the other hand, a revelation. I know of no other artist whose work suffers so much from compression. Even the large, original newspaper pages were inadequate to convey the wonderful subtlety of the even larger originals. Ditto Kurtzman. The original color comps for 'Little Annie Fanny'contained important information not visible in print.

"I loved the Feininger originals. I'll talk about them in detail when I get a blog up sometime in the near future. Stanley and (especially) Barks certainly were great artists but I'm not sure that seeing their originals would have added much to what we already knew about them."

MB adds: To read what one of the curators said about the exhibit's criteria, click on this link. It seems evident that the availability of original art was a major concern (and worked against the inclusion of Barks, in particular). But if cartoonists work with reproduction in mind, why is not a reproduction as much an "original" as the original art? And if the original art looks a lot better than the reproduction, is that not an indication that the cartoonist has to some extent failed at his job? It's questions of that kind that I wish the exhibit had addressed..

April 2, 2006:

WALT ON THE RADIO: From Galen Fott: "I thought you might be interested in hearing a recording of an old radio show I found while researching Nashville puppeteer Tom Tichenor. In 1949 Tichenor wrote and performed on a radio show out of Nashville called 'Wormwood Forest, 'and an early episode had as guests Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, voiced by Disney and Clarence Nash. In the Nashville Public Library there’s a great photo on display of the 'Wormwood Forest' cast gathered around a microphone with Disney and Nash. On my website I’ve put mp3 files of the eight 'Wormwood Forest' episodes I could find."

As Galen notes, Walt was in Nashville promoting So Dear to My Heart. I'd already heard that January 22, 1949, show, thanks to Keith Scott, and it's worth a listen—a true curiosity, especially considering that Walt's radio appearances seem to have been mostly on national network shows, rather than such local shows.

COMICS MASTERS: From Jeet Heer:

I was interested in your review of the 'Masters of American Comics' show. I tried to kick up a debate on the canon of great works on the Comics Journal message board. As you'll see from my comments below, I questioned the absence of Barks and Stanley, which I think was a result of giving priority to comics as a visual medium and ignoring the literary side of the equation. Here was my initial comment:

I thought it might be useful to look at the whole list and ask who belongs there and who doesn't. Here is the list:

1. Winsor McCay
2. Lyonel Feininger
3. George Herriman
4. E.C. Segar
5. Frank King.
6. Chester Gould
7. Milton Caniff
8. Charles Schulz
9. Will Eisner
10.Jack Kirby
11.Harvey Kurtzman
12.R. Crumb
13.Art Spiegelman.
14.Gary Panter
15.Chris Ware.

Now, this is a very good list, as far as I'm concerned. Everyone here is indeed a master, having done work that is either great art or highly influential (or both). My only caveats would be1) Lyonel Feininger -- who did wonderful things but whose career as a cartoonist was very brief— it can be fitted into a very thin book. Including him seems to be just trying to grab some legitimacy from high culture.

2) Milton Caniff -- okay, he invented (or co-invented) an influential style. But I don't know if his stories hold up.

3) Eisner and Kirby -- great artists, but only middling writers, I think. In a lot of ways, Carl Barks and John Stanley were their superiors in terms of writing stories that actually work as stories.

If it were up to me, I would not include Feininger. He would get a nod though in the introduction to the catalogue that accompanies the exhibit.As for Caniff, I think he should be cut and replaced with either Roy Crane or Harold Gray, both superior cartoonists (and in Gray's case, a much better writer). I would keep Eisner and Kirby but balance them by adding either Barks or Stanley.

The biggest drawback of the list is the dearth of contempory cartoonists. They have only four living cartoonists (Crumb, Spiegelman, Ware, and Panter). Of these four, only one (Ware) emerged in the last 20 years— Crumb, Spiegelman and Panter had already well launched in their important work by 1985.

You wouldn't know from this list that the current generation of cartoonists is the strongest we've ever had: artists who are transforming the very possibilities of the medium. So, I think the list of currently working cartoonists needs to be expanded. If we keep to the rules of only Americans allowed, we can still expand the list to include Lynda Barry, Charles Burns, Joe Sacco, Phoebe Gloeckner, and so on.

Of course, then the show gets too big. But if I were doing a show and I only had 15 slots to fill, I would only keep the very best of the early 20th stuff (let's say McCay, Herriman and King), the very best of the mid-century stuff (Schulz and Kurtzman) and then have the bulk of the show on contemporary work. I really think that a show like that would give a better sense of the potentials of the medium, since the artists who are working now have an expressive range that only the very best artists in the past equalled.

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