"What's New" Archives: December 2015
December 31, 205:
Walt Kelly, on the Record
December 28, 2015:
The Good Dinosaur
December 15, 2015:
Walt Kelly's Fairy Tales
December 13, 2015:
In the Meantime...
December 31, 2015:
Walt Kelly, on the Record
In Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books, I write on pages 226-27 about Story Book Records, the little 78 rpm children's "picture records" from 1946 on which Walt Kelly told sixteen familiar stories, playing the parts of all the characters in vigorous, uninhibited performances. I own five of the eight records, and digital copies of all of them, but I was foreclosed from posting any of the records here, first by my agreement with the collector from whom I bought my digital copies, and second, where my own records are concerned, by my technical incompetence. I've posted clips from my interviews here, but those interviews are on cassette tapes; digital copies of 78 rpm records are beyond me. So, Kelly fans who've wanted to hear the master's voice haven't had many good options.
Happily, Mark Kausler has come to the rescue, by posting two Story Book sides, "The Traveling Musicians" and "The Lion and the Mouse," on his blog. Like all sixteen of the Story Book sides, these two are very brief, only about a minute and a half long, but there's lots of Kelly packed into that short time.
Mark also provides an illuminating comparison with the "Song of the Pogo" LP that Kelly made a decade later: "What I love about these records is that I got to experience the younger Walt Kelly when he had his full range of bass and treble and could do squeaky mouse voices or grumbling, roaring lion voices and narrate the story in his 'normal' tone of voice. As you listen to these, imagine you are watching Kelly pitch a storyboard, his pitching style was probably quite a lot like these records sound. His voice changed considerably by the time he recorded 'Go Go Pogo' and 'Lines Upon A Tranquil Brow' for the 1956 record album, 'Songs of the Pogo.' His energy fell considerably, he can barely bellow out 'Break Out the Cigars, This Life is For Squirr’ls. We’re off to the drugstore to whistle at girls.'”
I've never been able to warm up to the 1956 record, on which everyone, Kelly definitely included, seems strained and uncomfortable. Kelly's voice had indeed changed by then, diminished by a decade's worth of alcohol and cigars. The younger Kelly is much more fun to listen to.
I've added a link to Mark's blog for pages 226-27 on my errata page for Funnybooks.
From Garry Apgar: Well, Mr. Barrier, you just answered my musical question, What Are You Doing New Year's Eve? The musical question, that is, posed by the 1947 popular song of the same name by Frank Loesser, one year after those Walt Kelly "picture records" came out.
Glad to see you're busy manning your posts and decking the halls with Boston Charlie, even at holiday time. Now, what are you doing for Boxing Day?
[Posted January 1, 2016]
December 28, 2015:
The Good Dinosaur
I saw Pixar's latest feature the weekend that Disney's new Star Wars feature opened. I was one of four people in the audience for The Good Dinosaur. We saw a movie that was, I'm sure, considerably odder than the vastly more popular movie that was playing in an adjacent auditorium.
The alternative reality of The Good Dinosaur is one in which most of the dinosaurs were not wiped out by an asteroid's collision with the earth 65 million years ago, but survived instead for unspecified millions more years, ultimately sharing the planet with primitive human beings. An amusing premise, really, if you consider the comic possibilities in a dinosaur evolution that was not interrupted by a catastrophe. What if the remaining dinosaurs did not mutate eventually into birds—as scientists tell us—but changed in a different direction, becoming creatures more like us? Something like that is the premise, I gather, of the series of books under the title Dinotopia.
Perhaps it was to avoid any uncomfortable comparisons that Good Dinosaur's director, Peter Sohn, and his colleagues severely limited the number and species of the movie's dinosaurs. Arlo, the title character, his parents and his siblings are apatosaurs, close kin to the more familiar brontosaurs. Arlo encounters a trio of friendly tyrannosaurs and a somewhat larger number of raptors and pterodactyls, variously unctuous or merely vicious, but for the most part The Good Dinosaur's world is vast and empty.
Whatever his exact intentions, the story Sohn tells is unmistakably a creationist fable of the sort peddled by people who choose to read the Book of Genesis as if it were a science textbook. Slice away the opening few minutes, so that there's no mention of "millions of years," and you have not just a creationist fable but a young-earth creationist fable. Young-earth creationists believe not only that the earth and all its creatures, dinosaurs included, were created by a supreme supernatural being, but that the act of creation occured just a few thousand years ago. There's even a well-funded museum in Kentucky devoted to promoting young-earth creationism. I was tempted to visit it when I was in the vicinity a few years ago, but I decided I would almost certainly find it more sad than ridiculous.
What we see in The Good Dinosaur—young apatosaurus and human child bonding as they elude perils in a pristine wilderness; dinosaurs and other animals from eras separated by millions of years living side by side—is exactly the sort of thing that young-earth creationists would have us believe really happened. The Good Dinosaur is set in a vivid, freshly created world in which dinosaurs have not evolved to have the opposable thumbs that would make agricultural pursuits conceivable (because evolution has never happened, you see), but have become farmers and ranchers anyway. It's probably an antediluvian world—the few human characters are in a state of nature—although creationists would argue that a healthy sampling of dinosaurs must have made it onto Noah's ark, surviving long enough to be remembered by humans as...dragons.
Well, and so what? Young-earth creationism may be silly—I certainly think so—but there's no reason a silly idea can't be the starting point for an entertaining movie. (See, for example, the 1977 movie that ignited the whole Star Wars phenomenon.) To judge from the noisy previews I saw with The Good Dinosaur, most of today's cartoon producers have embraced silliness with gusto. The Good Dinosaur is, however, a somber and exasperatingly serious movie about a stubbornly foolish subject. Its embrace of creationism smothers the imagination rather than unleashing it, and so there's none of the fun that could have been had from a movie about sentient dinosaurs who evolved to become something like people. Such a movie might have resembled Pete Docter's Monsters, Inc., one of the few truly successful Pixar features, and one of the few (Brad Bird's are others) to blend comedy with real feeling. The Good Dinosaur is instead cold and glum at its heart.
From Kevin Hogan: I feel like the movie was ruined by too many cooks in the kitchen—silly premise that got away from the team as numerous directors took the helm. I could be wrong, but I read that story problems led to numerous rewrites and director changes.
From Donald Benson: Dinotopia was originally a pair of very attractive illustrated books with minimal story; an improvement on the Gnome books with their drawings and quasi-academic notes.
In time it became a series of novels, an unfortunate Disney miniseries (Disney reportedly had great hopes of a franchise), and I think an animated series from somebody else.
The original premise was an island where dinosaurs survived; your basic Lost World / Civilization scenario. Some species (definitely not all) learned to communicate and profitably coexist with man in an elegant version of the Flintstones. The first book was mainly the notes of a Victorian castaway and his son, documenting how this society functioned. The survival of dinosaurs is presented as a mysterious anomaly.
Co-existent humans and dinosaurs are dismissed by all but young earthers, themselves a minority in the creationist community. I suspect children's fascination stems in part from the clear understanding they're safely extinct. Yet the idea persists in popular culture, accepted the way we accept fiction of monsters, the supernatural and Santa Claus without literally believing them.
To your greater point, it is troubling when something in popular culture nods to the facts but presents a persuasively contrary visual. Good Dinosaur, which I haven't seen, I'm tempted to let off the hook because the dinos are purposely cartoony and the "what if" premise is stated up front. More problematic is Song of the South, which is vaguely stated to be after the Civil War (Uncle Remus is fired, not sold or tortured) but otherwise clings to an idyllic vision of plantation life. Not to mention "fact-based" dramas that peddle an agenda via "artistic liberties" (a Benghazi action movie is on the way).
MB replies: I visited some websites to see what creationists were saying about The Good Dinosaur, and I was mildly surprised to find that people of that persuasion seemed to be uniformly alarmed that children might be exposed to the opening title card's reference to an event 65 million years in the past. As I've suggested, I think the movie is otherwise so firmly, if perhaps unintentionally, creationist in its outlook that that title card seems almost like a mistake. The creationist parent who wants to shield her child from disturbing thoughts about the antiquity of the universe need only get to the theater a few minutes late.
One of animation history's interesting "what ifs" is this: What if Walt Disney, who was working on an Uncle Remus feature before World War II, had been able to get something like Song of the South into theaters before Pearl Harbor? Would the film's awkward racial content seem less offensive, sort of like Gone with the Wind's (and there's a movie I really dislike), if it had turned up on movie screens before World War II's attendant social changes had raised public consciousness about the evils of segregation?
[Posted December 29, 2015]
From Charles Kenny: I read your review of The Good Dinosaur and came away with a sense of
dèja vu, which I thought a tad odd seeing as I hadn't read of any
similar conclusions anywhere else. Nonetheless, I eventually figured out
It seems that this would not be the first Pixar film to contain a
creationist theme. A guy called Josh Berta wrote a rather thorough
analysis of the first Cars movie back in 2011 that identifies numerous
pieces of evidence that point to, or at least allude to, intelligent
design within that universe.
The parallels with The Good Dinosaur may be coincidental, but it is
certainly a curious similarity.
Here is the link if you are curious.
MB replies: Berta's piece, on the DesignObserver website, is very enjoyable (and I think persuasive), but even more interesting are the seventy comments, overwhelmingly negative, and mostly written by people who appear to be creationists. I'd guess that one or more creationist websites unleashed these trolls, whose belligerent stupidity certainly puts the lie to any possibility that they were "intelligently designed."
[Posted February 25, 2016]
December 15, 2015:
Walt Kelly's Fairy Tales
That's the title of a new book from Craig Yoe, collecting most of Walt Kelly's stories for Fairy Tale Parade, a comic book published by Dell from 1942 to 1946. Here is some of what I say about Kelly's fairy tales in my book Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books: "Kelly's stories ... combine charm with the emotional openness and immediate appeal that Walt Disney's animators sought and that was such a lively novelty in early comic books. ... Kelly did not mock the fairy tales he illustrated, but he found a great deal of fun in them. That was especially true in stories whose writing was recognizably his, wholly or in part, as when he embraced the comic possibilities in a giant with two quarrelsome heads."
Thanks to Craig Yoe, it's now possible for readers without large Kelly collections to gauge such comments against almost all of Kelly's Fairy Tale Parade stories, reproduced in color—as faithfully as possible, I have no doubt—from the original comic-book pages. The comic books themselves are the only source material available, the original art having been destroyed long ago, and the photographic negatives and plates almost certainly scrapped years before Western Publishing, which produced the comic books for Dell, left the comics field in the 1980s. Add in the substandard printing that afflicted many Dell comic books during World War II, and you have some idea of the challenge that Yoe faced. He has by this time, though, published many other books from similarly difficult sources, sources that are either in the public domain (like the Kelly stories) or "orphaned" (that is, someone may own the copyright, but no one can be sure who), and that experience is visible in the new Kelly book's pages.
Walt Kelly's Fairy Tale Parade, from IDW Publishing, is a beautiful product—the title page properly credits Clizia Gussoni for that aspect—with gilt-edged pages and a markedly luxurious feel. It's a triumph, and even Kelly collectors who have the comic books on their shelves, as I do, should buy a copy. There's a foreword by Dean Yeagle and an introduction by Yoe himself, both fine as far as they go, but, truthfully, you can learn a lot more about Kelly and his comic-book work by reading Funnybooks.
As much as I like Walt Kelly's Fairy Tales, I do have one quibble, and a complaint.
My quibble is that there's no mention of the Story Book Records, the sixteen 78 rpm sides each of which was devoted to a familiar children's story narrated by Kelly in a most distinctive manner (in Funnybooks, I write of "his broad, emphatic vocal acting that is an aural equivalent of his most boisterous comic-book stories"). Only a few of the Story Book stories are true fairy tales, but exactly the same is true of most of the stories in Walt Kelly's Fairy Tales. Like his fairy-tale burlesques of the 1950s, Kelly's high-powered spoken-word versions make for interesting comparisons with his Fairy Tale Parade stories.
My complaint goes to the omission from the book of the best story in Fairy Tale Parade No. 1, "Little Black Sambo." There's no doubting why that story was omitted; it's for the same reason that the book includes a paragraph on the copyright page disavowing "representations" in its seventy-year-old stories that have become unacceptable in our "more enlightened" culture. The use of American blacks as the human characters, rather than the Asian Indians of the original version, was presumably one such "representation," but those black characters speak standard English, not in dialect, and they are drawn without offensive distortions. Kelly drew many other stories that are open to complaint on racial grounds, but "Little Black Sambo" is not one of them. It can only be the title of the story, and its unfortunate associations, that led to its condemnation. Until someone has the courage to reprint "Little Black Sambo," you can read about it, and see one page from it, by turning to pages 62-65 of Funnybooks.
This is a golden time for admirers of the cartoonists at the heart of Funnybooks—Carl Barks, John Stanley, and, of course, Walt Kelly—because so much of their work has been reprinted or soon will be. Those reprints have varied greatly in quality, because reprinting comic-book pages successfully is so difficult, especially when the original printings are the only available source material. For example, I've seen only the first volume of Hermes Press' reprinting of Kelly's complete Dell Pogo comics, but—a binding error aside–the color in that book strikes me as too bright and harsh. Walt Kelly's Fairy Tales captures more successfully the sense of what the stories looked like in their original pulp-paper incarnations.
Craig Yoe has posted on YouTube a short video about Walt Kelly's Fairy Tales. Well worth a look if you're debating with yourself whether to buy.
From Craig Yoe: Oh, thank you so much for your wonderful and much appreciated review!
I saw another on-line comment about the book saying that the Little Black Sambo story isn't offensive and should have been included. I very much disagree. The dialogue is ok but those ginormous lips Kelly drew ala racist caricatures of the turn of the century were a terrible misstep. This story is a cringing embarrassment in my opinion. I absolutely would not read that comic to my 5 and 3 year old. If this book was just for scholars or historians, fine. I've published drawings along that line in my books in small doses for historical purposes. But panel after panel of this was way too much to stomach. For those that "want" such material there are a couple such small depictions in other places in the 300 plus pages of Walt Kelly's Fairy Tales, hence the disclaimer on the copyright page.
I also feel that including such art in such a large quantity via Little Big-Lipped Sambo could have precluded Walt Kelly's Fairy Tales getting on the New York Times Annual Gift List, and many other such lists as it has done. The splendiferous result has been the book getting out to the general public, not only to University Professors, Fan Boys and Ku Klux Klan members—those types! "Drawing in the lush, curvy style of early animation, Kelly breathed new life into old fairy tales in these 1940s comics. So, pull up a chair, snug a child onto your lap and luxuriate in this winning collection!”—The New York Times. That's what the Times concentrated on, luxuriating with the book, not loathing its racism—bully for them and the book!
I'm quick to point out that I in no way think Walt Kelly was a racist. I think he maybe lacked the foresight or made a poor judgement here. Will Eisner did the same with his step-and-fetch-it Spirit sidekick, Ebony. Cringe! In fact, in the dialogue in Little Black Sambo and in aspects of his Our Gang comics and other places, like in Pogo, of course. I think Kelly was ahead of his time. Kelly was in many, many ways quite courageously progressive.
I know this is an eye-roller, but here and in other instances when assembling these Yoe Books' books I "ask" the cartoonists what they would like in these books representing them. I "felt" Kelly was happy not to have Large Embarrassment Sambo here. Naw, I'm not claiming a direct line with the cartoonists who have gone on to the Great Studio in the Sky. And I don't actually hear voices in my head, but it's a little not overly serious exercise I often do. Maybe you talk to Walt and he told you that I'm full of shit, but there you have it!
But, there's this: my partner Clizia agrees with you and thinks Little Black Sambo should have been included!
I alone take full responsibility to leaving that godawful story out.
But, at least I didn't write an otherwise brilliant and loved by me book about the Beatles and not even once mention John Lennon! I mean to say, "write a book about Dell Comics and not even once mention Bud Sagendorf and his nearly 100 genius Dell Popeye comic books combining what he learned from being E.C. Segar's long time assistant with inspiration from the Fleischer cartoons!" In Funnybooks you deified Walt Kelly, Carl Barks and John Stanley. The Fab THREE?! Michael, leaving out the Fab Fourth was a SERIOUS sin of omission! Bud told me so himself!
MB replies: Craig is editing a series of reprints of Sagendorf's Popeye comic books for IDW. The curious may wish to consult them and decide for themselves whether Sagendorf deserves to be considered a Fab Fourth. I don't think so, but I must admit it has been a long time since I read very many of the Dell Popeye comics.
The curious may also wish to consult the postings of Kelly's "Little Black Sambo" that Mark Mayerson points out in his message just below. I was tempted to post some pages from "Sambo" myself, but I'm glad that Mark and the two reprint sites have saved me the trouble.
From Mark Mayerson: I don't know if you or your readers are aware of two sites that feature public domain comic books, including Fairy Tale Parade. Digitalcomicmuseum.com and comicbookplus.com both have the issue of Fairy Tale Parade with "Little Black Sambo." The story can be read at this link.
There is a lot of Walt Kelly material available, including the complete run of Animal Comics. There's also John Stanley material such as Dunc and Loo and Thirteen Going on Eighteen.
[Posted December 17, 2015]
December 13, 2015:
In the Meantime...
Family obligations and now the holidays have militated against my posting very much here, but there has been signficant activity on the site, even so. Some of my recent posts have stimulated thoughtful responses; see, for example, Will Coates's extended comment on the Jack Kinney interview. A second Kinney interview, from 1976, will appear here sometime early next year. The page devoted to corrections, clarifications, and second thoughts about my most recent book, Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books, has been busy, too. A few errors have turned up—very few, I'm pleased to say—but most of the discussion has been devoted to Carl Barks and the conditions affecting his work. That discussion, touching on such things as paper quality and image size, has been illuminating to me, and if you're at all into Barks and the other comic books published under the Dell label in the 1950s and early 1960s, you may enjoy reading the extended dialogue keyed to page 326 in the book.