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MichaelBarrier.com Exploring the World of Animation and Comic Art

"What's New" Archives: November 2012

 

November 29, 2012:

The War of the Wards

 

November 27, 2012:

A Kimball Crisis

 

November 15, 2012:

Things That Bother Me

 

November 6, 2012:

Winsor McCay Versus Prohibition

John Stanley's Last Workplace...

In Brief

 

November 29, 2012:

Ward Kimball

The War of the Wards

Here's another snapshot from my December 12, 1986, visit to Ward Kimball's home in San Gabriel, this one taken outside Ward's Grizzly Flats Railroad depot. I can't explain the props now (a really big toothbrush?), if I ever could. It's perhaps enough to say that they speak of the subject's unusual personality. When you're a great Disney animator, you're entitled.

Since posting two days ago about the Walt Disney Company's insistence on sanitizing Amid Amidi's Kimball biography, Full Steam Ahead!, I've heard from Diane Disney Miller, Walt's daughter and the founder of the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, and Floyd Norman, the veteran Disney artist and writer. You can find their comments at this link. Diane's sentiments are mine, exactly, and Floyd's second message is, I think, rather chilling. Amid's difficulties are not unique; the Walt Disney Company's minions are insisting on editing other people's books as if Disney were going to publish them itself. That's beyond the pale. What I hear the company saying through its actions is that books like Amid's and Floyd's have little or no value apart from what is bestowed on them through Disney-licensed illustrations. So, Disney is justified in exercising ultimate control over their editorial content, even on so flimsy a basis that a book has made some Disney suit "uncomfortable." What arrogant nonsense.

If anyone asked my opinion (not that anyone has), I'd urge Amid and Chronicle Books to publish Full Steam Ahead! without any Disney-licensed illustrations. Ward was an excellent and very distinctive cartoonist, and a book in which his drawings have not been filtered through the larger Disney sensibility would be startling and refreshing. And there are Kimball drawings on the fringes of Disney's domain—I'm thinking about that wonderfully degenerate "Mickey Mouse" he drew many years ago for Bob Foster, and his hilarious caricatures of his colleagues as various incarnations of Captain Hook—that could be included without trespassing on sacred ground. True, such drawings might provoke a form letter from Margaret Adamic (just doin' her job, as some toady would undoubtedly whine in Cartoon Brew's comments), but any letter of that sort could be safely consigned to the wastebasket.

Comments

From Jeff Heimbuch: I feel as if I need to comment on the whole Ward Kimball affair.

I recently (two weeks ago) released a book with former Imagineer and Disney Legend Rolly Crump about his life, called It's Kind Of A Cute Story. Obviously, a large portion of the book is about his life working at Disney.

Rolly was, and still is, an artist. So, obviously the book had to be very visual in nature in order to reflect that. We wanted to use photos throughout the book, and knew what a pain it would be. We knew going into the project that if we wanted to use any photos that Disney owned, we would have to go through their legal department, and that they would try to exercise editorial rights over the content.

Now, I'm not sure if you know a lot about Rolly, but he was never one to keep his mouth shut if he didn't like something. He was never a yes man, and always spoke his mind, and that, I'm convinced, is why Walt liked him so much.

Rolly Crump bookRolly says some things about certain projects and people that I'm quite sure the Walt Disney Company would not approve of. But of course, these were stories that were essential to the book (and the ones people would find the most interesting). There was no way we could lose them, and so, we decided to seek out photos that Disney didn't own.

I connected with Amid in May 2012, and we sort of bonded over the fact that we're two young guys writing the bios of these Disney legends. We lamented our various problems with our respective projects, but the thing that remained constant was his struggle with Disney approving the manuscript.

I know everything about Disney is magical and happy, but to think they can limit or creatively control the content about people that worked for them is unbelievable and appalling.

I have spoken to Rolly about Amid's problems a few times, and he is completely flabbergasted at their actions. His comment has always been "Well, thank god we didn't try to use their photos then, huh? My story wouldn't have been half as interesting."

I really feel for Amid and for Ward's family. Their struggle is pretty crazy, and quite frankly, it's one I wish I could help more with.

Ward's story, much like Rolly's, is one that is a little off kilter, and that's what people love about him. We want to know more behind this interesting guy. But if Disney continues to squash it, then they are hurting their reputation, and Amid's hard work.

From Mark Sonntag: Amid's book was going to be the biographic highlight of the year, and I think he should go with non-Disney sanctioned photographs. Surely the Kimball family has many photos that the Disney Company has no legal claim to.

I think it's ludicrous that one of the key people to spread the anti-Semitic word about Walt [Neal Gabler ]should get full sanction from the company, especially with his unfounded claims about Walt and Lilly's marriage, not to mention some very bizarre claims about Roy and Edna's sex life.

The wonderfully talented people who helped Walt build the company may never have their stories told. It all boils down to corporate insanity.

[Posted November 29, 2012]

From Thad Komorowski: Forgive my seeming ignorance, but why is fair use not coming into play at all with regards to Disney illustrations? From what Amid and Jerry Beck have told me, there were amazingly very few illustrations in the Kimball book from the very start that Disney could even voice an opinion about. Are you telling me that Disney will actually pursue legal action over a dozen or so drawings placed alongside literally hundreds of others?

When it comes to the point where you actually want to use a Disney character on the cover of your serious book, or want said serious book sold in the Disney theme parks or stores, though, Margaret Adamic's office has every right to exert control, however ridiculous that may be. You think enough of their pretty pictures and shops to actually get their attention, they're going to want to control your book.

It sounds like Chronicle is scared of severing lucrative ties to those sanctioned "art of" books. Somebody really needs to openly defy this corporate behemoth, but I have zero interest in ever writing anything at serious length about Disney, so that person won't be me. (But if they call me to do a making of Alice in Wonderland book, I'll probably heel to any command they give.)

As for Neal Gabler's book, I can't make heads or tails of it because it's so clumsily edited (it calls to mind reading a foreign newspaper without knowing anything about the foreign language), but I think calling him a "key" person in saying Walt Disney was antisemite is way too strong a denunciation, considering his (stupid) statement about Walt refusing to hire Jews amounted to one half sentence in his An Empire of Their Own, a 500-page book. Printing such a bald-faced lie as fact in that context only damages him and eviscerates seriousness in anything he writes about Walt Disney.

MB replies: I think it has been true for a long time that Disney basically doesn't recognize fair use. Many years ago, a Disney lawyer seriously tried to tell me that every panel in a comic-book story or comic strip is a separate copyrighted entity, and therefore reproducing even one panel from a comic book requires Disney's permission (and presumably payment of a fee, if Disney so chooses). I sent him a long lawyerly letter explaining why he was full of prunes, but he never replied. No surprise.

There is such a thing as fair use, of course, whether or not Disney chooses to recognize it. But fair use can't be a cloak for profiting at someone else's expense. I don't think fair use ordinarily extends to using a copyrighted Disney image on the cover of a book, and it's certainly true that if one asks special treatment from Disney—like a guaranteed place on the sales counters at Disneyland—one must expect that The Mouse may demand something in return. I'm not aware of any such complications in the case of the Kimball biography, although Chronicle's continuing relationship with Disney may be complication enough.

In my own case, the transaction involved was straightforward: the Disney buyers wanted The Animated Man in their stores because they thought they could sell it; and they did, until Margaret Adamic made her unjustified claim of copyright infringement. I wonder sometimes what might have happened if I had submitted the book and illustrations to Adamic, not for her approval but to make sure she had no objections to the contents. Of course, I knew she had no basis for objections, and so I decided not to waste my time, and hers, by sending her a book she didn't need to see. I underestimated the Disney capacity for finding copyright infringement where any reasonable person would find none.

Gabler's Empire was important because the book was taken much more seriously than it deserved to be; and that footnote about Walt really sticks out, as very dismissive if not contemptuous. It was, besides, part of a pattern of negative comments by Gabler about Walt. He was, and remains, a very strange choice as the biographer of a man he obviously did not respect.

[Posted December 3, 2012]

November 27, 2012:

Ward Kimball and locomotive

Above and at the end of this item are my photos of Ward Kimball at home in San Gabriel, California, where I visited him on December 12, 1986. Oh, the trains? Well, with any luck Amid Amidi's Kimball biography will be published next year and you'll get the full story on Ward's very unusual hobby.

A Kimball Crisis

I'm sure that most people who come to this site are like me and visit Cartoon Brew daily, so I needn't go into detail about Amid Amidi's difficulties with the Walt Disney Company over Full Steam Ahead!, his biography of the great animator Ward Kimball. Briefly, Disney, in the person of Margaret Adamic, who is in charge of such things, has refused to permit the use of its copyrighted illustrations in the book unless Amid makes changes in the text that would, I gather, make Ward seem more like a clean-cut all-American boy and less like the naughty prankster—or dirty old man, as one of Walt's secretaries would have it—he actually was.

I read the book in manuscript, at Amid's request, made some suggestions, and helped him plug a hole or two with information and photos he needed. It's a very good book, well researched and well written, and I recall very little in it that might make a maiden aunt blush. If there's any blushing, it will be because of what Kimball himself said or did—and it is, of course, the most important purpose of such a biography to present its subject whole, even when some of what he has said or done may make a reader uncomfortable. Amid's Kimball biography will be an important addition to the animation-history bookshelf—if, that is, Margaret Adamic ever relaxes her grip.

Adamic's objections have delayed and possibly derailed publication of the book. It is to be published not by Disney itself, it should be noted, but by Chronicle Books, a San Francisco company that has done very well by Disney in publishing a series of flattering "art of" books about recent Disney animated features. Adamic supposedly reads every word of a book before authorizing the use of Disney-copyrighted illustrations in it. That's fine with me; but a Disney functionary has no business usurping the editorial judgment of an author and his publisher, unless that publisher is the Walt Disney Company itself. Otherwise, that functionary should just say "no," if "no" seems to be in order, and leave it at that.

Amid has in his frustration with Disney gone public with his complaints about the company's treatment of his book—a risky course, needless to say, but one I can understand and endorse, especially since other authors are apparently encountering obstacles of the same sort.

Amid's woes have called to mind my own encounters with Margaret Adamic, most recently in connection with The Animated Man, my 2007 biography of Walt Disney. When I was writing that book I asked her for access to the Disney Archives, and that access was refused because Neal Gabler was already at work on his biography of Walt. Since the Walt Disney Company had chosen as the authorized biographer of its founder a writer who had previously branded Walt Disney an anti-Semite and dismissed two of his greatest films as "treacle cartoons," I decided that I would keep my distance from the company during work on my own book. I thus chose only illustrations that I was certain the Walt Disney Company could not legitimately claim to own.

So far so good, until the fall of 2008. It was around that time that Walt Disney World began selling the paperback edition of The Animated Man in its stores. That led to the book's coming to Adamic's attention, and on September 25 she wrote to my publisher, University of California Press, complaining, in legal-boilerplate language, that The Animated Man reproduced "our copyrighted images and images depicting our copyrighted characters and other valuable DISNEY properties." No specifics. Most important, from my point of view, this challenge meant that my book could not be sold in the Disney theme parks.

Since Adamic's complaint was both vague and erroneous, it was difficult to frame a response. Adamic didn't reply when UC Press asked for specifics. In January 2009, I wrote to her myself, and again she did not reply. I then accepted an offer of help from a friend who knew someone who knew a high-ranking Disney executive, and in February I sent that executive a two-page letter describing my dilemma. He called me two months later, in April 2009, to tell me that five photos were the problem, because Disney owned them, and that details would follow from Adamic.

They did, a few days later. Four photos were at issue, not five, and Disney owned none of them. (If you borrow someone else's old photo and make a copy negative from it, that doesn't give you ownership of the photo. If you distribute a publicity photo widely with no copyright notice and no restrictions on use, you can't assert copyright when someone uses it in a book. And so on.) I wrote to Adamic, after putting on my battered old lawyer hat, and explained in detail why Disney's claim to own the photos was not valid. She replied a few weeks later, on May 14, 2009—that is, almost eight months after her initial complaint—in what I can only describe as the most grudging terms: "Although we do not entirely agree with your position, we have decided in the interest of not extending the debate longer than it has gone on, to not pursue the matter further. Accordingly, we will simply instruct our Disney Theme Parks Merchandise buyer[s] that they are free to sell your books in the theme parks if they choose to do so."

Need I say that the buyers chose not to do so? Perhaps they thought the book wouldn't sell to theme-park visitors (although that wasn't what the Walt Disney World buyers seemed to think before Adamic's edict came down). But certainly they might have reasonably concluded that the book was damaged goods, that it bore a fatal taint after its eight months on the taboo list. Why risk annoying higher-ups by putting such a book on a park's shelves? I wouldn't have run that risk myself, back in the days when I worked for a couple of other dysfunctional large organizations.

What was so frustrating about this episode was not that Disney, through Adamic, complained about my use of four photos. It was that the complaint was so vague, and that Adamic refused to respond to a request for details until that Disney executive involved himself in my case. Meanwhile, I suffered real injury through the removal of my book from sale in the theme parks. I think about how differently things might have played out if Adamic had from the beginning told me and my publisher which illustrations were the subject of her complaint, and we had thus been able to prove quickly that no copyright infringement was involved.

All of this is not to say that Amid's situation is any better or worse than mine was, only that the same kind of corporate overreach that is damaging his book also damaged mine. I'm sure other people have similar stories. Perhaps Margaret Adamic herself is the victim of unreasonable demands from executives higher up in Robert Iger's hierarchy; or maybe she's just one of the petty tyrants who always flourish in poorly managed bureaucracies. Regardless, it seems likely that this sort of scrutiny of what serious authors write about Walt Disney and the people who worked for him will lead only, at best, to cautious books of the kind I wrote about in the essay I called "The Approved Narrative."

As I say in that piece, books worth reading can still emerge under such circumstances. J. B. Kaufman's new book on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs may be one. I read that book in manuscript a few years ago, at Kaufman's request, and I remember it as a solid piece of work. I haven't seen the published book, so I have no idea how well it survived Adamic's scrutiny.

And what would Ward Kimball think of all this? If you listen very carefully, you may hear derisive laughter drifting through the ether. Who is the target of that laughter? Probably best not to ask.

To read extensive excerpts from the interview I recorded with Ward Kimball during my 1986 visit to his home, click on this link.

Ward Kimball and trains

Comments

From Ted Herrmann: I was a vendor for Disney back in the '80s and had a small taste of their legal dept. back then. In your case, it's obvious she was just taking a wild shot in the dark, and backed down before she had to spend any money. I have a suspicion that tactic works in many cases.

It may be the same in Amid's case too, but she could keep him on the hook for a long time. In any event, it's a shame I won't be reading this book soon. Ward Kimball is one of my favorites in animation. Honestly, I wouldn't even care if the book wasn't illustrated at all. His art is forever in my mind, and some of it's even available at Amazon.

MB replies: I can readily believe that it took Margaret Adamic eight months to come up with four supposedly offending photos because when she sent her first letter to UC Press she had no specific photos in mind at all. She may have been gambling that somewhere in the book there had to be a photo or two that Disney owned; but there wasn't.

[Posted November 27, 2012]

From Kevin Hogan: I have a lingering feeling that theWalt Disney Company is hesitant to review its history at all. While I get a sense of what you call the “Approved Narrative” in the “Making of” documentaries that accompany many DVD releases, it seems to me that narrative may be too strong a word. The in-house made documentaries and publications more often than not seem to try to say as little as they can about films, avoiding specifics. Names are dropped and general anecdotes are mentioned, but specifics about the process, the ideologies of the company, or the people involved are few and far between.

Walt Disney himself was always reluctant to give people too much of a peek behind the curtain (the Disneyland TV show was just as vague in describing the process of animation as any recent Disney released documentary). However, I believe that Walt Disney Productions was clear that Disneyland was meant primarily as entertainment, not as a documentary. The current Disney Corp. is trying to sell their ingenuous documentaries and publications as serious works—a clear distinction from the past generation.

It sounds to me that you and Amidi make the Disney Company nervous—you both want to narrate too much.

From Floyd Norman: I might as well jump in on the Ward Kimball Crisis.

After completing my new book Animated Life I headed for Disney's Legal Department hat in hand. I knew I needed approval for use of artwork in the book and I knew the process would be a lengthy one. However, I expected several weeks not several months. In any case I should have known what I was in for.

I still find it amazing that a book that does nothing but lavish praise on the Disney Company should have such a tough go of it. In any case, I knew the drill and the things I experienced during this process were hardly unexpected. Hopefully, I'll get this book to press in a few weeks, but I'm not making any promises.

[Posted November 28, 2012]

From Floyd Norman, following up on his earlier message, above: I've been luckier than most. Disney's legal department excised one chapter from my book because it made them "uncomfortable." I expected possible problems because some chapters dealt with race and gender. Surprise, surprise. What bothered Disney was the subject of ageism.

Pixar had an odd request. The back cover of the book featured a photograph of myself with Buzz and Woody in the Pixar hallway. Pixar wanted the photograph removed. Probably because people might confuse me with John Lasseter. After all, we both look so much alike.

MB replies: As I've suggested to Floyd, maybe if he'd just lay off wearing those loud Hawaiian shirts...

From Diane Disney Miller: Regarding the problem that Amid Amidi is having with his bio of Ward Kimball, I know that the Kimball kids have worked with him closely on it and want very much to see it published. I was intrigued with the idea of an exhibit of Ward's non-Disney art which I thought would make a very interesting and extremely relevant exhibit in our museum [the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco], along with the book in our store.

No one at the company seemed bothered by Neal Gabler's rather vicious and totally erroneous portrayal of my poor little mother and my parents' marriage. I've always wondered where Gabler got the idea that they were never in love...not happily married...etc. Can't Amidi publish what he wants? Again, look at what's been done to my dad!

[Posted November 29, 2012]

November 15, 2012:

Things That Bother Me

Crowdfunding: Earlier this year, I voiced my skepticism about such crowdfunding sites as Kickstarter and Indiegogo in terms that now seem quaint: "For a filmmaker they are, it seems to me, intensely problematic. Asking for small contributions to get a film off the ground isn't quite like drumming up small contributions for a political campaign; your base of potential support is obviously much smaller. But if, given the limited size of that base, you set your funding goal at a level so high that as a practical matter you're asking people to chip in hundreds or thousands of dollars, some people may quite reasonably wonder why they shouldn't get a piece of the film, instead of just dropping money in the filmmaker's tin cup."

But last weekend, according to Cartoon Brew, "Blur Studio completed its crowdfunding effort for the proposed animated feature, The Goon, based on Eric Powell’s comic book. They exceeded their $400,000 goal, and set a new crowdfunding record for an animation project by raising $441,900 from 7,576 backers. The previous record-holder, Starburns Industries, had raised $406,237 in September for their stop motion film Anomalisa."

Hundreds of people, it seems, were more than happy to drop hundreds or even thousands of dollars in Blur's tin cup, in exchange for which they will receive goodies of various kinds, ranging from posters to (for a $10,000 donation) lunch with the filmmakers after a private screening of the story reel the Kickstarter money will pay for. Two donors chipped in enough to win the latter prize; I hope for their sake Blur has a good caterer.

It all seems very strange to me, although not as surpassingly weird as more than 3,500 Kickstarter backers' shoveling $136,723 at John Kricafalusi so he can make a short cartoon called Cans Without Labels. Does anyone really believe that a lack of financing is what has held John K. back since the brief glory days of Ren and Stimpy, as opposed to his own persistent lack of artistic discipline? Who will get the blame if Cans Without Labels turns into yet another Kricfalusi train wreck?

As the sums involved grow larger, crowdfunding reminds me more and more of the schemes through which wealthy people buy a whiff of Hollywood glamour by investing in individual movies. Now the" investors" are more numerous, the individual sums involved are much smaller, and if a film is successful the filmmakers need not part with a share of the profits but only with a few tchotchkes. There's a "story arc" here that I don't find particularly appealing.

One problem is, though, that sometimes small, interesting projects turn up on these funding sites, and they don't deserve to be lost in all the noise surrounding the likes of The Goon and Cans Without Labels. I swore off mentioning crowdfunding after my drumbeating for Michael Sporn's Poe—the epitome of the worthy independent film—but I have to put in a good word for two crowdfunding efforts that promise to result in short films of more than routine interest. Mark Sonntag, a longtime friend of this website, is seeking funding through Indiegogo for a short cartoon called Bounty Hunter Bunny, and Betsy Baytos is trying to finish her documentary film Funny Feet: The Art of Eccentric Dance, through Kickstarter. I won't go into detail about either project; I'll just say that I'd actually like to see both films when they're finished. Take a look, and you may agree.

I've made a small financial contribution to both efforts. But that's it. I'm through with crowdfunding, and I'm certainly done with publicizing any such projects here, no matter how worthy.

Facebook: Sometimes weeks will pass without my looking at Facebook, but I logged in yesterday, mainly to see if anything was happening with members of my family. I was chagrined when I found any number of messages, some of them sent to me weeks ago. Just for the record, I really dislike the idea of Facebook's serving as a sort of substitute email. Keeping up with regular email is sufficiently time-consuming; I don't want to feel obligated to log in to Facebook just in case someone has written to me there. So, if you do write to me through Facebook, and you don't get a reply, don't be offended.

Comments

From Geoff Blum: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I think you out-curmudgeon even me, not that I don’t agree with you totally about Ren and Stimpy, and your final paragraph on Facebook was more gentle than I’d have been. If anyone so much as mentions the word to me I spew venom, and I live in terror of the day when our Commander in Chief cozies up to Zuckerberg sufficiently that we’re forced to file tax returns through Facebook.

From Mark Sonntag:I just read your post and you make a very good point, I also read about The Goon last week and was scratching my head wondering why they even needed crowdfunding in the first place, especially with a supposedly high profile director attached not to mention being a pre-sold property. I wasn't aware of John K. , but again I can't help but ask why? Is this the future of getting films made? In a way I'm not surprised, six years ago I signed away an option agreement for Bounty Hunter Bunny and off it went to MIPCOM as a series pitch, I even dumbed it down so to speak to make it more for kids, the responses were overwhelmingly favorable but then when it came time to deal the networks or studios interested wanted it to be more ugly because apparently that's what kids want, they wanted it to be more irreverent . . . obviously they didn't read the pitch or watch the animatic which was quite different then, the character was cute yes—for a reason.

On the other end of the spectrum, when I put it back to where I had it I was told it wasn't sick enough to be adult. To mirror Walt I realized I was on the right track because I don't want to be sick I want to be clever, inventive sight gags with an adult flavor etc. And, the are many adults who want some class and imaginative humor in their cartoons or just entertainment in general, I wager a huge untapped market. Clearly the road ahead is a tough one, fortunately I have a number of volunteers to help out if worse comes to worse.

But what a sad state of affairs if established properties and film makers need to go crowdfunding to be heard.

From Don Benson: I have only a general grasp of crowdfunding, but I'm sure I'm not the first to think of The Producers.

Instead of producing a guaranteed bomb and pocketing the difference, our new scamsters would lay hands on an existing, completed film—some obscure student project or a forgotten commercial venture. Then they post some "production art" images, raise funds to cover the non-existent production costs, and eventually serve up the finished product.

The twist would be their finished film is recognized: A fabled lost short that would have been worth huge money in an honest sale. Instead, they're facing criminal charges and a naïve Kickstart angel holds title to the valuable reel. They try to convince a court that this was actually a performance art prank . . .

Not really a viable movie, but I'd be very surprised if the basic scam isn't already out there.

[Posted November 15, 2012]

From Mark Sonntag: Your article on crowdfunding has really got me thinking and for the most part I think it can easily become a scammer's paradise if it is not already. I'm a believer in out of the box thinking and you've got me thinking beyond trinkets and stuff. If the people behind The Goon or even John K. believed in what they were doing they would offer a percentage-based equity or return on investment, essentially making participants investors or lenders rather than donors.

Of course there is no guarantee of a return, but it's something that I'm seriously considering offering, at the very least money back, plus 10% along with listed perks, that way in the long run nobody is out of pocket and can also make something from it. There are documents like certificates that would need to be issued, or letter of intent which would make the deal legal and binding. I believe in what I'm doing and have a long term goal, I can't speak for others, and, unlike many others I've already sunk a large sum of my own money into it.

I don't like taking something for nothing, and the sums that some of these guys are asking for and getting are obscene when considering who in the end will actually get paid.

[Posted November 17, 2012]

November 6, 2012:

McCay dust jacket

Winsor McCay Versus Prohibition

J.J. Sedelmaier is the proprietor of a New York animation studio that bears his name and that has produced memorably witty TV segments for Saturday Night Live, The Colbert Report, and other shows. He is also a frequent contributor of fascinating posts to Print magazine's outstanding blog, Imprint. His most recent contribution is about a 1929 book with illustrations by Winsor McCay in his most ferocious political-cartoonist mode.

As J.J. writes: "Titled Temperance—or Prohibition?, it's a small hardbound book filled with data presenting the Hearst Syndicate's position of repealing the Prohibition laws and the inconsistent behavior of legislators responsible for supporting and enforcing the Volstead Act. The reprinting of select political cartoons by McCay and Opper helped demonstrate Hearst's ongoing campaign." Which was, of course, successful a few years later. Click here to read J.J.'s complete post, "Winsor McCay’s Anti-Prohibition Illustrations." You'll find on Imprint's Sedelmaier page links to his earlier contributions; I especially recommend the one titled "How Walt Disney Used His Kansas City Library Card," about the checkered history of E. G. Lutz's Animated Cartoons.

These posts of J.J.'s are wonderfully illustrated, in the McCay post with a dozen or so illustrations from the book, in the Lutz post not just with pages from the book but with photos of different editions, American, British, and German. Here's your chance to sample a copy of the original 1920 edition of Animated Cartoons, complete with dust jacket. And there are many other posts of equally rare and equally compelling material. I don't know of anything comparable to these posts except possibly the scans that Michael Sporn posts in such abundance.McCay on prohibition

John Stanley's Last Workplace...

Fairgate Rule...has been torn down. The brilliant creator of the Little Lulu comic book put down his pencil around 1970 and moved with his young family from Manhattan to Cold Spring, New York, in the Hudson Valley, where he went to work for a company called Fairgate Rule, a manufacturer of high-quality rulers and yardsticks. Stanley worked for Fairgate, in the small (5,900 square feet), blue factory building in the photo, as a craftsman; as he said at the Boston Newcon in 1976, "I work in silk screening. It has no relationship at all to cartooning." Stanley's son, James, says of his father: "I think at his core he was an artisan, a perfectionist who wasn’t afraid of getting his hands dirty—so it isn’t a stretch to understand where he ended up." Stanley retired from Fairgate sometime in the 1980s and died in 1993.

When it was torn down last January 30, the Fairgate factory had been closed and empty for five years, since Fairgate's assets were sold to another company in Rhinebeck, New York. It was a non-conforming use in an otherwise residential neighborhood, and it had become an eyesore by the time it was demolished. The Fairgate name survives on precision products of the kind the Cold Spring company used to make.

Comments

From Frank Young: What a fascinating piece of information—complete with photograph! So that dismal portable quonset hut was where the greatest writer in comic books whiled away his later years... making rulers! The irony of this situation is beyond bitter... Stanley obviously had some serious emotional problems, related to depression and alcoholism, and with it the apparent lack of self-regard that would cause a man to abandon his obvious calling for anonymous make-work. On the other hand, perhaps Stanley felt such deep burn-out—and possible resentment—towards his comics career that this humble, hands-on activity, with a regular paycheck, felt comforting to him. Stanley could have had a healthy slice of the adulation that washed over Carl Barks in the 1970s and beyond. By the time Stanley wised up and tried to get his foot in the door, Barks' place on the throne of Lovable Grand Old Man of Comics was unimpeachable. There was no room for two at that stratosphere of acclaim. That Stanley's work lay dormant from the 1970s until just a few years ago (the Little Lulu Library, a small-run, obscure effort, scarcely counts, in terms of the number of people it reached), while Barks's work constantly remained available in reprints, further stacked the deck in the Duck Man's favor. Both men did remarkable work, and both deserve every iota of praise for their work. But Stanley was in a distinct second-place in terms of "fan favorite," and this ranking, I think, has kept any serious writing about his work and life relegated to blogs such as yours and mine. I hope your book on Western and Lebeck redresses this imbalance. Who knows--maybe I'll get to write my Stanley book someday... Thanks for this post—and for your always-informative, surprising blog.

MB replies: Frank Young is the proprietor of the excellent Stanley Stories blog, where you can read many of John Stanley's best stories, accompanied by Frank's insightful comments. He's also a comics creator himself, co-author (with David Lasky) of The Carter Family: Don't Forget This Song (Abrams Comic Arts).

[Posted November 15, 2012]

In Brief

Tissa David and John CanemakerTissa David: The beloved New York animator died last August 21 at the age of 91, when I was away from home and this website, so I couldn't mark her passing then. I knew her only slightly, and for some reason never interviewed her, but I knew how good an animator she was, and I knew how much her friends loved her. The last time I saw her was at the Museum of Modern Art's retrospective of Michael Sporn's films, in 2007. And that was appropriate, because the best film on the program I saw—and maybe the best of all of Michael's many excellent films—was The Marzipan Pig, which Tissa animated entirely. There was a memorial service for Tissa in New York on October 23, and Michael Sporn has posted a detailed report about it; five of her friends and colleagues spoke, including John Canemaker, Howard Beckerman, Candy Kugel, R. O. Blechman, and Michael himself. It was a warm and loving occasion, and the transcripts of the short talks by John and Michael convey with wonderful economy just how exceptional a person Tissa was. I wish I could have been there, and I certainly wish I'd spent more time with Tissa herself. I've borrowed the accompanying photo of Tissa with John Canemaker from Michael's blog.

Sandy: Michael Sporn has also posted a detailed report on how he and his wife, Heidi Stallings, survived the aftermath of last week's great storm. It's not nearly as boring as he would have you believe. I'm a bit of a snob where natural disasters are concerned, especially since an F-1 tornado came charging down my street at 3 a.m. a year and a half ago (goodbye, 200-year-old oak tree in my front yard! I should have posted some photos here), but my condescending chuckles were silenced as I read about what it was like to muddle through in a cold and dark and wet lower Manhattan. We have other friends who live in that vicinity and who had to make their way to and from their 27th floor apartment by candlelight. No fun. But did I tell you about the ice storm back in 2000 that trapped me and Phyllis and my in-laws in their house for four days at Christmas with no power... That was bad; but I think maybe Sandy was even worse.

Movies: I see so few new movies these days that I keep thinking I should say a little about those I do see, mostly on Blu-ray, just so my readers know that I spend my time doing some things besides reading comic books. But what to say about John Carter? Maybe that it isn't nearly as bad as the reviews led me to expect—the Disney marketing people must have had their knives out for Andrew Stanton—but that it is still fatally flawed in some obvious ways: there is more story than the movie can accommodate, and the hero is a jerk. Simplify the plot and make John Carter himself more sympathetic, and you've got a show. Everything Pixar makes is to me lacking just as much as John Carter is, but somehow the animated features escape the crushing scorn that greeted their live-action cousin. The Adventures of Tintin, on the other hand, is just as hopeless as many reviewers thought. Steven Spielberg obviously had a good time Adventures of Tintinmaking it—who wouldn't enjoy flitting around in your own private computer-generated environment?—but he didn't think enough, or at all, about whether his audience would share his enjoyment. I have grown very tired of the super-fast, intricately choreographed action that seems to be required now in all computer-animated films, and that Spielberg lavishes on Tintin. The technology that makes such choreography possible also makes it ultimately unconvincing, because it usually is so obvious that the story has been constructed around the choreography, rather than the choreography's advancing the story. And then there are Tintin's motion-captured characters, who are basically "cartoony," à la Herge, but whose skin is adorned with all the pores and freckles and blemishes that CGI folks mistakenly think make their characters seem more real, instead of simply bizarre. Has Spielberg never seen The Incredibles, whose characters lack such accoutrements but are infinitely more persuasive as real creatures than Spielberg's puppets? And then there are the "cartoony" passages in the animation, as when Captain Haddock is spun around on an airplane propeller, the sort of thing that would kill a real actor...well, enough.

And more movies: Speaking of The Incredibles, I'm reminded of its director Brad Bird's first live-action effort, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, which was far more successful at the box office than his Pixar colleague Stanton's first such feature. I actually don't know how one goes about "directing" a movie like Ghost Protocol, a vast machine that is a producer's movie (that is to say, Tom Cruise's movie) if ever there was one, but whatever Bird did, it worked. I thought I could detect his hand mostly in the quieter scenes, when Cruise and Jeremy Renner and the other actors are supposed to be, and actually are, recognizable as human beings, an impressive accomplishment especially where Cruise is concerned. Finally, let me say a word about the stop-motion Czech feature Toys in the Attic, directed by Jîrî Barta, which could just as well be called Toys in the Basement, it's so grubby-looking. It's a cold-war parable, and it recalled for me stop-motion films from Eastern Europe that I must have seen decades ago. It's a strange and anachronistic but ultimately charming film, because it's not relentlessly slick, like the typical American stop-motion production. But I didn't like the American actors' voices on the soundtrack; this is a movie that cries out to be heard in the original language, with subtitles.

Comments

From Ricardo Cantoral: I entirely agree with you about your analysis about The Hollywood Machine of today. Decades ago, actors used to be exploited for their personalities. Films used to be crafted around their own strengths once they reached a certain pinnacle of success. The names of Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, and Michael Caine above of the titles of films used to be all the drawing power a studio would need. Today, no leading man is trusted anymore. Yes, we still see names above titles but in the modern blockbusters, it ultimately doesn't matter anymore. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol for example had no reason to get any one with a famous name, not even Tom Cruise who could have easily been replaced with an unknown stuntman and the "film" would not have been affected at all. As you stated, it was a producer's machine, Tom Cruise's machine, but the irony is what is clearly an attempt to further inflate the already vast ego of a popular (and mediocre) actor is just another demonstration of how names don't matter anymore in these "films." The superhero movies, Lord of The Rings, Avatar, Mission Impossible, they are churned out like linked sausages every year. [Posted November 14, 2012]

From Vincent Alexander: I just wanted to chime in and say I fully agree with your comments on John Carter, The Adventures of Tintin and Mission Impossible, and I'm looking forward to seeing Toys in the Attic at some point. However, I was wondering if you were planning on seeing ParaNorman or Frankenweenie. Neither of those films were, to use your phrase, relentlessly slick—particularly the latter, which felt every bit as jerky and raw as Tim Burton's very first short, Vincent (obviously, Burton was trying to go back to a more hand-crafted look after the animation in The Corpse Bride turned out to be maybe a bit too smooth). Both movies very successfully mixed macabre humor with a certain sweetness that didn't seem forced, and—best of all—they actually felt personal, which is quite an achievement in animation these days. I walked out of ParaNorman and Frankenweenie with a big smile on my face, which is more than I can say for the excessively bland CGI features I saw this year, like The Lorax, Brave and Hotel Transylvania (although Transylvania at least had funny movements and a nice hand-drawn sequence during the end credits). Unfortunately, given the middling box-office performance of ParaNorman, Frankenweenie and The Pirates! Band of Misfits (which wasn't great, but it had some good jokes in it), we'll probably be seeing a lot more generic CGI franchises and a lot less quirky stop-motion flicks. Hopefully, Henry Selick will find a distributor for the film he's working on.

MB replies: I haven't seen either ParaNorman (which came and went last summer while I was away) or Frankenweenie (which didn't stir my interest enough to make me want to see it in a theater), but they're now on my Netflix Blu-ray list.

[Posted November 15, 2012]

From Gene Schiller: Regarding the current crop of animation, I enjoyed Rango andThe Secret of Kells more than you, and the Robert Zemeckis “A Christmas Carol more than most, but we agree on Coraline, and I think I can safely recommend Mary & Max (stop-mo claymation, with an excellent characterization from Philip Seymour Hoffman) and perhaps Chico & Rita (2-D) for your edification, provided you can get the Blu-rays—the backgrounds come out blurred on standard def. Also, UPA’s 1001 Arabian Nights with Mr. Magoo is available on MOD from Warner Archives, in a print that’s almost as sparkling as the recent “Jolly Frolics” collection. And, I have a region two copy of Jiri Barta’s Toys in the Attic—it’s entertaining even without subtitles.

I wish today’s animators would pull back on the *action* sequences – they’re just filler, and most of it goes by so quickly one can’t properly ‘read’ the action, so what’s the point? However, there’s a car chase in Chico & Rita that had me holding my breath!

MB replies: There are definitely some titles on Gene's list that I want to see in Blu-ray.I can't work up much enthusiasm for another viewing of the UPA 1001 Arabian Nights, though, no matter how exemplary the transfer.

[Posted December 1, 2012]

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