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MichaelBarrier.com Exploring the World of Animation and Comic Art

"What's New" Archives: March 2012

 

March 27, 2012:

Sporn's Poe, Again

 

March 26, 2012:

The Walt Disney Family Museum

 

March 10, 2012:

Hal Horne's (and Walt Disney's) Gag File

 

March 8, 2012:

Michael Sporn's Poe

 

March 7, 2012:

Dr. Wertham Had a Point

 

March 27, 2012:

Sporn's Poe, Again

Time runs out Friday for Kickstarter funding for Michael Sporn's animated feature Poe, which I last wrote about on March 8. As of this writing,funding commitments total less than half of the $21,500 goal. I've been bumping up my own commitment every day or so, and I'm sure other people have been doing the same. To repeat: Sporn is a real artist, and this is a uniquely worthwhile project. Michael deserves the support of everyone who cares about the art form.

A March 31, 2012, update: Regrettably, funding commitments for the Sporn Poe fell short of the goal. Our loss.

March 26, 2012:

The Walt Disney Family Museum

Phyllis and I spent a week earlier this month in northern California. It was our first visit to California is almost five years, a fact that amazes me when I think about how often we both visited the West Coast in years past. We played tourist for several days in San Francisco, visited friends there and in Santa Rosa, and spent a wonderful weekend in the beautiful coastal village of Mendocino. But unquestionably the best day of our trip was March 14, the day we spent at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco.

Diane Disney MillerWe expected to spend only a few hours in the museum, but we were there from shortly after the 10 a.m. opening until 5 p.m., with a break only for lunch at the museum's cafe (a quality operation, catered by Wolfgang Puck). The museum is that good, a tremendously interesting and entertaining place, and the time we spent there simply flew by. I write about the museum in the essay you'll find at this link. Suffice it to say that you need to go.

We met Diane Disney Miller—that's her at the right, with me and Phyllis in a cellphone photo—her husband, Ron, and Jeff Kurtti, author of a shelf full of Disney books, and we renewed our longstanding acquaintance with Paula Sigman Lowery, whom I first knew as Dave Smith's assistant at the Walt Disney Archives, back in the 1970s. Both Paula and Jeff (who took the photo) now work with Diane Miller at the museum.

While we were staying with our Santa Rosa friends, we made our third visit to another museum, the Sharpsteen Museum in Calistoga, at the head of the Napa Valley. The museum, devoted to Calistoga's history, is named for Ben Sharpsteen, the longtime Disney animator, director, and producer who founded it, and a Disney touch is visible in the exhibits, some of which were painted by the former Disney layout artist Ken O'Connor. Phyllis and I visited the museum for the first time in January 1979, when Ben himself took us there to see the newly completed diorama of Calistoga in the nineteenth century, and we made a second visit in June 2002. There's a room at the museum devoted to Ben and his Disney career. The Sharpsteen Museum is well worth a visit, although it would benefit from a little more of the showmanship that makes the Walt Disney Family Museum so enjoyable. But then, Ben himself was well aware that Walt was the sun in whose light Ben and many other people shone.

Comments

From Don Peri: I really enjoyed and appreciated your pieces on the Walt Disney Family Museum. I feel very fortunate that I live within 90 minutes of it and can attend many of the guest-speaker events there. I haven't been to the Sharpsteen museum for a while, but when I do go there, it brings back lots of memories, not only of Ben, but of being there when Ken O'Connor brought in his large canvas of the horses.

[Posted March 27, 2012]

March 10, 2012:

Hal Horne's gag file

Hal Horne's (and Walt Disney's) Gag File

"The "snipe" on the back of this 1941 publicity photo reads as follows: "Room of a million jokes is visited by Frances Gifford, leading lady of Walt Disney's 'The Reluctant Dragon.' Librarian Lillian Grainger, right, shows how a Disney writer dips into the world's largest gag file in search of an inspiration."

That gag file was Hal Horne's, until he sold it to Walt Disney in 1936 for twenty thousand dollars. That transaction may have been as much or more an act of charity on Walt's part than a hard-headed business decision, as you'll see when you read my Essay on Horne's gag file and the role it played in the birth of the Disney comic book; it's at this link. It's doubtful that many Disney story men found inspiration in Horne's 3-by-5-inch cards.

I've adapted this piece from a chapter of my work-in-progress on comic books, the Disney and Dell comic books in particular. Like my other books, my next one will come well equipped with endnotes. I decided to dispense with them here, because I think such notes look much more awkward on a Web page than in print, but I'm willing to be persuaded that I should incorporate such notes in similar pieces.

As to whether Hal Horne's enormous gag file still exists, and, if so, where: I've queried the Walt Disney Archives on those points, but so far I don't know the answers.

Thanks to Didier Ghez for some valuable assistance with this piece.

A March 23, 2012, update: Hans Perk has written to remind me that he posted an item about the Horne gag file on his invaluable blog back in 2007; it's at this link, and includes the transcript of the November 1936 meeting at which Horne gave his pep talk to the Disney story men. Walt was present and encouraged his writers to use the file. Hans also quotes Dave Smith, the recently retired Disney archivist, as to what happened to the gag file in later years: "they gave it away to some institution some time in the 70's, and the gags weren't that funny for more modern audiences, after all..." The identity of that "institution" was then, and still is, a mystery.

Comments

From Didier Ghez: I LOVED your essay (as you knew I would). One small comment: You mention the MMM as being "the first Disney newsstand periodical", of course you mean "the first American Disney newsstand periodical" since both Topolino and Le Journal de Mickey were launched before it was.

MB replies: Ah, my xenophobia was showing! I've made the necessary correction.

[Posted March 11, 2012]

From Kevin Hogan: The gags sound like Rocky and Bullwinkle throw-aways.

[Posted March 22, 2012]

March 8, 2012:

Michael Sporn's Poe

PoeI've written often on this site about Michael Sporn, the New York-based animator/director/producer whose films bridge successfully the worlds of independent animation and commercial animation. Here's what I said in 2004:

Michael has made dozens of short films at his own New York studio since 1980. As he has said, he makes "commercial films"—for the most part, films commissioned by other organizations—"but they have to have an artistic bent to them, or there's no reason for me to have done them." Even his self-financed films have clearly been made with an audience in mind. They are not the self-indulgent exercises so often associated with the phrase "independent animation."

Many of the earliest Sporn films were faithful adaptations of children's books for the Weston Woods company. More recently, he has made TV specials—some fluffy, some remarkably serious—for cable and broadcast networks. Always, he has worked with budgets microscopic compared with the wasteful extravagance of the big Hollywood studios. ...

I have never known him to surrender to the bitterness and cynicism that always threaten struggling artists, or to the self-deception so common among the sad hacks who don't want to admit they've given up on themselves and their art. Michael is now, as he was when I first knew him, intensely self-critical and wholly devoted to animation as an art form. When he says, "I think animation has the potential of being the greatest of all the arts," he means it, and he lives it. ...

I wonder sometimes what would happen if Michael finally had adequate budgets and could escape the madness that lets a Ralph Bakshi or a Don Bluth command millions while a Michael Sporn scratches for thousands. Would bigger and better films result, or would the inventiveness now demanded by his circumstances diminish? I'd certainly like to find out.

You should want to find out, too, if you care at all about animation as an art form, and now there's a way you can put your money where your heart is. Michael has initiated a Kickstarter campaign to raise the modest sum he needs to move forward with work on his long-in-gestation feature film, Poe, based on the life and stories of Edgar Allen Poe. Twenty minutes of the film exist now in Animatic form, and as Michael explains on his Kickstarter page:

We hope to turn the many segments started into completed animation to be able to thrust the feature film, Poe, into complete production. The Kickstarter money will do that for us and help satisfy the needs of the possible distributors and financiers who are already interested.

You can read much more about the film on the aforementioned Kickstarter page, where you can also contribute in an amount as small as five dollars. The goal, which must be reached by March 30, is $21,500 (would that pay for Jeffrey Katzenberg's lunches for a week, I wonder?). I've already made one small contribution, and I expect to make more in the weeks remaining before the deadline, just to keep the ball rolling. Whatever reservations you may have felt about Kickstarter in the past, and I've certainly felt some, they're completely irrelevant in this case.

Michael also maintains a blog, called Splog, that shames me with its daily and almost invariably substantial updatings. Michael is one of the animation world's princes, and he and his film deserve your admiration and support.

Comments

From Thad Komorowski: Agreed wholeheartedly on Michael Sporn. Poe's work is screaming to be given proper attention as an animated film, and Sporn should be everyone's choice for the job. The budget is indeed exceedingly modest too. But I digress. This is what a real genius does with six months time and north of one million dollars.

MB replies: I wasn’t aware of John Kricfalusi’s music video; a work of surpassing genius,to be sure. That it seems to me to look just like everything else he has made in the last couple of decades is obviously proof of my philistinism.

[Posted March 8, 2012]

March 7, 2012:

Sadowski Cover

Dr. Wertham Had a Point

I've enjoyed trolling through Greg Sadowski's new compilation of 176 "golden age" comic-book covers, Action! Mystery! Thrills! Comic Book Covers of the Golden Age 1933-1945 (Fantagraphics). The book's cover, above, borrows from Alex Schomburg's you've-got-to-be-kidding cover for Suspense Comics No. 3, April 1944.

A couple of thoughts came to me as I paged through the book. The first was that "nostalgia" as a source of interest in such comic books must now be almost extinct. The oldest comic books represented in the book were published in 1933, the most recent in 1945—that is, between seventy-nine and sixty-seven years ago. Anyone with a first-hand memory of buying those comic books off a newsstand or at a drugstore is somewhere in the vicinity of eighty years old, which means that the comic books are now historical curios on the order of the dime novels of the early years of the last century.

As I looked at one crowded, badly drawn, feverish, or just plain weird cover after another, I also thought of the infamous Dr. Fredric Wertham. He was of course the psychiatrist who more than anyone else fomented a popular reaction against comic books in the late 1940s and early 1950s, by drawing a straight line between the comics and juvenile delinquency. Wertham's methodology and his conclusions were both more than questionable—his highly colored writings were in effect horror comics for the literate liberal—but he put his finger on what I've come to think of as comics' greatest weakness. Wertham was never distracted by pleas on behalf of "good" comics, because in his eyes all comics were inherently bad, the medium itself hopelessly deficient. Bart Beaty, in his comprehensive study of Wertham's life and work, Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture (University Press of Mississippi), summarizes the argument that Wertham made in one chapter of his most famous book, Seduction of the Innocent:

For Wertham, the problem of comics rested with the medium itself, regardless of the content: "The comic-book format, with its handled balloons scattered over the page, with its emphasis on pictures and their continuity, with its arrows directing the eyes from right to left or even up and down, with its many inarticulate words-that-are-not-words, interferes with learning proper reading habits." The entire basis of Wertham's critique of comics as a detriment to the acquisition of proper reading skills lay on the idea that despite the problems associated with the lurid content of crime comic books, the medium itself was inherently problematic and was consequently irretrievable for a literate culture.

This is, I've concluded after immersing myself in old comic books for the last few years, uncomfortably close to the truth. Comics are entirely too easy to produce, given a modicum of drawing skill; they're also extremely difficult to do well, because doing them well requires knitting drawings and dialogue together into an indissoluble unit, an intimidating task. Thus we've always had a lot of bad comics. Most early comic-book artists, like the people who dominate Sadowski's book, had no idea how to make good comics, and no idea why they would even want to try to do so. What we seem to have in many contemporary comic books is something different, an effort to compensate for comics' inherent weakness by tricking up the pages, in effect doing deliberately what earlier artists did out of ignorance and sloth. There are in all such cases fatal lacunae on the page, a sort of vacuum—not a physical space, something subtler than that—separating what the characters are supposed to be doing from what they are supposed to be saying.

What makes some comic books worth reading—and gives the lie to Wertham's condemnation of the medium—are the occasional triumphs of the people who understood the comics' challenge and met it. These are the cartoonists whose names I invoke so often: Carl Barks, of course, and Walt Kelly, and Will Eisner, and the others who knew that their characters had to seem to be speaking the words in the balloons, and to be speaking them not in a frozen moment but in the living, breathing slices of time that are the panels. It's in the best work of such cartoonists that the comic-book story proves itself as a valid artistic medium.

A few of those good cartoonists are represented in the new book, Kelly especially. I provided scans of four Dell covers, including Kelly's for Animal Comics No. 12 (along with scans from Donald Duck Four Color No. 9, Little Lulu Four Color No. 74, and Bugs Bunny Four Color No. 88), and there are a few other such specimens scattered throughout the book.The contrast with the bulk of the reproduced covers is, well, illuminating.

Comments

From Don Benson: Most popular art forms have been written off as degradations of higher forms. Musical theater had its roots as sort of a dumbed-down version of opera, while popular novels and cinema were seen as mockeries of literature and theater—often with good reason.

It took a while for artists to acquire the experience and the interest to push beyond mere product. The artists may have been consciously aiming for something bigger, applying themselves with a craftsman's pride, or simply making a job of work interesting for themselves. In any case, cheap popular art was easier to break into and offered more freedom (i.e., less supervision and critical attention).

Comic books never achieved the same eventual respectability as Broadway, movies, or even newspaper strips in their heyday. I suspect a big part of that is the perceived audience: Comics have always been firmly identified as juvenile, and not in a good way. Even in the '30s, an adult reading a comic was shorthand for stupid and/or lower class.

From what I understand, the reality was that comics were selling big to adults during the golden age covered by that book. Maybe kids were reading horror and crime comics, but did they really make up the bulk of readers? And the romance comics: Don't see them appealing to preteen girls or to boys of any age. I'd guess the younger kids were leaning towards funnybooks and superheroes. In that slightly less literate (and snobbish) age, it's easy to imagine adults flipping through the more lurid titles the way they read thick hackwork bestsellers now.

By the end of the war, it was more or less official that comics— all comics—were just for kids. Cinema allowed for subgroups (Preston Sturges for adults; Shirley Temple for children) and overlap (Hitchcock: visceral thrills AND critical respectability); comics did not. In my own teens comics were respectable in an ironic fashion thanks to pop art; but even then you didn't want to be seen reading Harvey titles or Charltons ... unless you were smirking derisively.

Now, oddly enough, comics finally are an elitist medium. They're priced over what kids would pay even if they cared, and too many are targeted at an audience as limited and inside as that for grand opera—maybe more so. This is sad, since the whole point of comics was instant clarity and accessibility.

From Thad Komorowski: I'm afraid Dr. Wertham's crusade against the comic book was so misguided and puerile that it's difficult to find poignance in anything he wrote. Viewing comic books as "a detriment to the acquisition of proper reading skills" is a fallacy in point. The academic, creative, and well-read have always perceived the rest of society as poorly read and ignorant, long before the invention of the comic book. Look at the centuries worth of English that literature professors and teachers would prefer students reading over comic books. You'd be hard-pressed to find a story where the majority of the characters aren't portrayed openly as poorly-read. (Speaking as someone who has read hundreds of pages of prose from Britain's supposed finest, and forced to analyze that work, I can safely say the ratio of convoluted to meaningful literature is probably similar to that of poor to classic comic books.)

The comic book was just a brand-new target for the elite to stomp on; with ease, I might add, because many comics are indeed pedestrian time-wasters. But then, just as equal a case can be made against the animated cartoon: it's at once the most wonderful and biggest waste of a combination of all the arts and sciences.

[Posted March 8, 2012]

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