"What's New" Archives: July 2017
July 28, 2017:
75 Years of Duck Comics by Carl Barks
July 12, 2017:
The Road to Hell...
Bugs Bunny, Packing Heat
July 28, 2017:
75 Years of Duck Comics by Carl Barks
The 2018 San Diego Comic-Con has come and gone, and with it the occasion for the publication of the con's souvenir book, which includes my essay marking the seventy-fifth anniversary of the publication of Carl Barks's first Disney Duck comics. You can read my essay at this link.
From Kel Crum: I enjoyed reading your article in the SD Comic Con book, although if there's one area where I disagree, it's when you find it truly hard to believe that such an artist as Barks could emerge from the comic book industry at such a time in history.
Actually I don't find it unlikely at all. since one of the things I love about art is how it can emerge from the unlikeliest places. There was a time when intellectuals would have laughed you out of the room if you suggested that a newspaper comic strip could be art, shortly before they were bowled over by Krazy Kat. (Respect for other strips would have to wait.)
Barks had a Disney background going for him. Also, although his Donald was more complex than the Disney cartoon duck, he was certainly similar enough that the publishers would have no reason to seriously object. The famous temper was still there. Only in the Barks stories, the childish tantrums became adult tantrums. Remember the one that ended with the kids asking for advice on plant life and Donald screaming "Look it up in your Junior Woodchucks guide book! I don't know anything! And that's the way we're going to keep it!"
I like your comments of how Donald's behavior in many of the old stories wouldn't get past the moral watchdogs today. That immediately made me think of "Maharajah Donald," a giveaway comic adventure and one of my all-time favorites in which our hero was—in Barks' own words—"very nearly the villain of the piece." I'd second that. He never quite redeemed himself in that story, but I love how, in the end, he seems to think he has, and that's good enough for the nephews.
I have a soft spot for the duck paintings, but I have to admit that they would look out of place next to the Rembrandts and Van Goghs and a little too appropriate next to Dogs Playing Poker. But I don't want to end on a negative, so I'll say that the spirit of a true artist shines even in his lesser work.
[Posted August 7, 2017]
I'm sure this editorial cartoon will be reproduced many places, but I can't resist posting it here in case any of my visitors missed it. What I especially like is that it captures the spirit of the Chuck Jones cartoons so well; the artist (whose name, I'm embarrassed to say, I can't decipher) clearly knows and likes the Road Runner cartoons, well enough that some of his poses echo the cartoons quite precisely. [A July 30, 2017, update: Garry Apgar identifies the cartoonist as Michael de Adder.]
But wait! I just noticed that this editorial cartoon appeared in a foreign newspaper! Time to build a wall on our northern border as well as the southern! Or maybe launch a surprise attack on Toronto. Those bloodthirsty Canucks deserve it.
One of my lasting grievances with my publishers has been that they've set the prices for my books too high. University presses are good at publishing books, but, in my experience, not very much interested in selling them. For a tenure-maddened assistant professor who takes the apothegm "publish or perish" seriously, getting into print is all that matters, but for someone like me, who wants his books to be bought and read, that's not enough.
That's why I've been pleased to see Funnybooks, in particular, listed at a somewhat more reasonable price on amazon.com in recent weeks. It's my favorite of all my books, and to see it overpriced and lagging in sales has been maddening (and my complaints have, I'm sure, not endeared me to the publisher). If you've been interested in the book but have put off buying it, now may be the time. The price has been bobbing around, and new copies are not available for Prime shipping from amazon itself, but finding a like-new copy for ten dollars or more off the the $34.95 list price should not be difficult.
Which reminds me: Volume 2 of Walt Disney's Treasury of Classic Tales, the Sunday-page reprint series, was originally scheduled for publication this month, but is now set for September 5. A third volume is scheduled for publication next March, and I see from amazon's listing that I am again to contribute introductory notes. That's news to me, since I've heard nothing to that effect from the publisher, but I will of course be happy to step up to the plate once again, even if that means writing about The Parent Trap.
July 12, 2017:
The Road to Hell...
...is paved with good intentions, of course, and for the past month this website has been a victim of such.
Some of my distractions have been good ones. It appears now that I don't have Parkinson's disease after all; that's what the doctors concluded after I was injected with a radioactive material (I started to write "after I was bitten by a radioactive spider") and underwent a procedure called a DAT scan.
On the negative side, I've hit a wall where my literary agent is concerned. As you may recall, that gentleman—let's call him "Jake," since that rhymes with "snake"—was appropriating my royalties on The Animated Man for himself until I blew the whistle a few months ago. By the time I caught on, the total he owed me was approaching eleven thousand dollars. After spending too much money on attorneys' fees, I've had to conclude that recovering those royalties would be prohibitively expensive and quite likely impossible ("judgment-proof" is the operative phrase). There seems to be no point in pouring more good money down that rathole. "Jake" has a Facebook page, so I'll be able to keep up with him that way, although his page has been quiet for the last few months. Maybe he knows he's being watched.
"Jake" and I have only one "Facebook friend" in common, the estimable caricaturist Drew Friedman—or is "caricaturist" the right word? I see that Mark Evanier has identified Drew as an "lllustrator," but that doesn't seem quite right, either. What Drew draws are portraits—of old Jewish comedians, most famously, and of comic-book worthies—that are not so much exaggerated, in caricatural fashion, as rendered with near-hallucinatory clarity. I love his published work, but I especially enjoyed a show of his original art at the Society of Illustrators in New York a few years ago. I hope "Jake" is not his agent, or that Drew caught on to him faster than I did. Drew has a blog at this link.
From Mark Mayerson: I'm thrilled to hear that you don't have Parkinson's disease. Always glad to hear good news.
From John Richardson: RE: Drew Friedman: You described his work well. It's almost as if someone invented a "Basil Wolverton" Photoshop filter and put it at the very lowest setting.
[Posted July 14, 2017]
Bugs Bunny, Packing Heat
I'm inordinately fond of the Dell Comics subscription premiums of the 1940s and 1950s, the pinups and trinkets you got for subscribing to the likes of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies Comics and Walt Disney's Comics & Stories (the latter technically not a Dell title, but close enough). I've written about them several times on this site, as at this link. So, when this pinup from the early forties turned up on eBay some months back, complete with original mailing envelope, I couldn't resist it, despite the sloppy color separations that left part of Bugs's face white instead of gray.
I planned originally to post the pinup around Memorial Day, but I had second thoughts and decided to put off posting until the Fourth of July. But then I got cold feet again. Why, I'm not entirely sure, but I think my reservations had to do with that pistol on Bugs's hip. There was just something too serious about that gun. Not too serious for Veterans Day, just possibly, but too serious for a day honoring the dead.
It may sound odd to speak of an overly serious gun in connection with Bugs Bunny, given the prevalence of guns in the Warner Bros. cartoons, and, for that matter, the frequency of violent deaths (Back Alley Oproar, Show Biz Bugs, ad infinitum), but the guns and the deaths are almost always at one or more removes from reality. They're metaphorical guns and deaths; the characters wielding the guns and suffering the deaths are reaping the consequences of their own greed or stupidity. As I think I say somewhere in one of my books—forgive me for not looking it up—the worst fate a Warner character can suffer is not to be maimed or killed, but to be embarrassed. Only rarely is a Warner character "really" killed, as in the occasional Daffy Duck cartoon in which Daffy exits from a roasting pan looking more like a zombie than someone who has been playing dead.
Such cartoons serve mainly as cautionary examples. In contrast, animation at its best can deal not just comically but masterfully with questions of life and death; Walt Disney proved that most notably in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and I recommend the closing pages of my chapter on that film in my book Hollywood Cartoons as evidence. The makers of the best cartoons are always aware of what they're doing, and of how to discipline themselves to achieve the result they want, whether that's laughter or tears.
While I'm on the subject, any thoughts on who drew that Bugs Bunny pinup? It started with a drawing by Bob McKimson, I think, but I don't know who took it from there.
From Milton Gray: Regarding the quote in your latest post on your website, “the worst fate a Warner character can suffer is not to be maimed or killed, but to be embarrassed,” I think that got said about the Coyote somewhere. But there is a very similar quote in Hollywood Cartoons, in the Preface, top paragraph on page xi (in the hardback edition). The word “embarrassed” does not appear in that paragraph, but the meaning is essentially the same.
MB replies: The passage I was thinking about is on page 499, in the section devoted to the Road-Runner cartoons.
From John Richardson: It is funny about that gun on Bugs's belt—and I didn't see it at first, even after glancing at the "packing heat" reference in the title. But there it is, as faithfully rendered as the monocle-like chin strap detail next to his eye. If he were threateningly pointing it at someone—even the viewer—there wouldn't be the dissonance.
[Posted July 14, 2017]
From Donald Benson: More rantings from a child of afternoon local cartoon shows:
You can usually wring a laugh from embarrassment, frustration, or rage; or some form of physical discomfort that incorporates any of the three. Persuasive pain or distress are much trickier propositions for comedy.
Consider the Three Stooges. If nothing else, they had a sense of what worked and what didn't. Their rules tend to carry over effectively into cartoons:
No blood under any circumstances (or any physical damage, aside from the occasional sight gag deformation). Recovery was instantaneous; drag a saw across Curly's pate and he instantly forgets the pain upon seeing what happened to the saw.
Anything involving the posterior was comic; it's the one part of the body where pins, arrows, fire, carnivores' teeth and even bullets can be applied and it plays as an assault on dignity as much as standard violence. Even calling attention to it can be a gag. This predates cartoons and probably even drawing.
With a qualified exception for posteriors, guns and knives are too real and too efficient for slapstick. Gags would most often be about avoiding them. Oddly, the bigger the guns— outsized six-shooters, blunderbusses, cannons—the less real and more comic.
Importantly, the Stooges never went for pathos, or allowed you up to feel sorry for anybody. Comics on the level of Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy might find laughs in realistic hunger or destitution. Most others, live or animated, don't go there unless they ramp it up to safely unrealistic absurdity—see the hungry castaways in Wackiki Wabbit. "Mickey and the Beanstalk" stumbles here. The character animation is too earnest and pitiful, even though they're absurdly slicing up a single bean and paper-thin bread to make transparent sandwiches.
The post-Fleischer Paramounts developed a weird tone-deafness with pain. Bluto, Katnip, and others would often be drawn as semi-conscious and hurting after a gag. Comedy is shaking it off and springing back into the fight with anger and clearly misplaced determination. And while Baby Huey never registered pain, the attacks he shrugged off, like an ax to the neck, were often cringe-inducing.
At most other studios, a character might register an instant of pain (Tom the cat's human yells) followed instantly by an emotional reaction (Daffy complaining to Bugs; Donald Duck's furious outbursts; Wile E. Coyote's camera looks). Then, roused to anger, the character at least tries to retaliate. The Coyote's dire expressions in the face of disaster might stir a little pity, but they were sufficiently outsized to play as comic, and were often accompanied by small, calm, and wildly inadequate responses (a dainty parasol to deflect a boulder).
[Posted July 16, 2017]