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"What's New" Archives: September 2010

September 27, 2010:

Chronicles

Satoshi Kon

 

September 20, 2010:

The Ducktators, in the Flesh

 

September 16, 2010:

Craig Yoe Writes

 

September 12, 2010:

Mike Maltese and Friend, May 31, 1971

 

September 8, 2010:

John Benson on Avatar and IMAX 3-D

 

September 3, 2010:

If Anyone Is Still There...

 

September 28, 2010:

Chronicles

RamayanaThe blue screen of death is appearing less frequently on my computer screen, and Windows Mail seems to have stopped chewing up my messages, for the moment anyway. I'm still trying to bring the new versions of Dreamweaver and Photoshop Elements under control, but at least they don't seem to be as dangerous as Windows 7. Our horrendous remodeling (horrendous in terms of the time and money consumed, not the results, which are so far excellent) is almost finished, too. All of which encourages me to try to get back to more frequent posting, starting with overdue attention to several interesting books.

Chronicle Books, based in San Francisco, has published a growing number of animation/comics books with Bay Area connections, like the "Art of" books filled with preliminary drawings for the Pixar features. Of the recent Chronicle books that have come to me for review, easily the most handsome is Ramayana: Divine Loophole, by Sanjay Patel. A Pixar animator and story artist—and the son of Hindu parents—Patel has retold, partly through words but mostly through his drawings, the epic that he calls "a story that is the bedrock of Hindu and Indian culture." This is the same ancient story that Nina Paley used as the basis for her marvelous animated feature, Sita Sings the Blues. Patel enjoys a cultural edge (he is also the author of The Little Book of Hindu Deities), but Paley's film, for me, makes more effective use of the Ramayana by presenting it through a broad spectrum of visual styles. Patel's book is far more uniform in its crisp and clever stylization, but it also verges on cuteness (the characters' eyes are very large), and the ultimate effect, in my eyes, is that Patel has decorated the story more than illustrated it. That said, there's no denying Patel's skill or the beauty of his book, which offers, in addition to the story itself, a lavish guide to the characters, maps, and other supplemental material.

Day & NightTeddy Newton, another Pixar artist, wrote and directed Day & Night, the short that accompanied Toy Story 3 in theaters last summer, and he has transformed that film into a very attractive children's book of the same title. I've never been a great admirer of Pixar's short cartoons, but Day & Night was better than most. Perhaps my memory has betrayed me, but the book seems simpler and more straightforward than the film, and if it is, the story has benefited from that change. So it seems from my adult perspective, anyway, but unfortunately, I don't have a small child handy to test my theory.

Another Chronicle book for children is Sparky: The Life and Art of Charles Schulz by Beverly Gherman, who has also written children's biographies of Ansel Adams and Norman Rockwell. I've only browsed through this heavily illustrated book, which is, if anything, a little too visually stimulating, with color on every page, most often behind the type (which is sometimes black, sometimes reversed, depending on how dark a color has been used for the ground). This seems excessive for a cartoonist whose work was so spare and restrained. But what I've read of the text is—to use that word again—refreshingly straightforward compared with David Michaelis's ostensibly adult biography of 2007. Here, for example, is Gherman's description of how Schulz worked:

Many cartoonists penciled in their whole strips and then inked over the lines. Not Sparky. He drew the characters with a pen—his C-5 Speedball nib—because he liked shaping them with a pen line, not copying over pencil lines. That kept his lines fresh and free.

Gherman surely relied on a published source—her book has an extensive bibliography—but I don't remember knowing that Schulz completely eschewed penciling his strip. I have two Schulz originals framed on my office wall, though, one from the early '50s and the other from the late '60s, and if there's a trace of pencil on either strip, I couldn't find it.

[A September 30, 2010, update: Alexander Rannie has pointed me toward the likely source of Gherman's paragraph above: pages 167-73 of Peanuts Jubilee: My Life and Art with Charlie Brown and Others by Charles M. Schulz (1975), a book that I've had on my shelf for years but hadn't consulted for a long time. Twelve photos, taken over Schulz's shoulder, show him drawing and lettering four panels with Snoopy, and on the last page there's a caption that says, in part: "The first thing I do is rough out the captions, usually in lettering so ragged that I am the only one who can read it. ... The main purpose is to get the words spaced properly. The next step is to rule in guidelines with a pencil. ... The completed lettering is then done with a C-5 lettering pen. The pose and the expression on the character in the last panel is usually what puts over the idea, so this is frequently sketched in first to make sure that the point will come across. Sometimes I will finish the last panel in ink, but in this case I started with the first panel and worked my way across."

Alex Rannie thinks the photo spread "clearly shows (and describes) how the whole business was penciled first and inked second," but, actually, Gherman was probably not that far off. Here is Schulz writing earlier in the same book (page 160): "I believe that as little pencil work as possible should go into the drawing, that the cartoonist should draw as much as is practical with the pen itself. I do not believe in the term 'inking in.' This would be an indication of merely following some prescribed pencil lines, with the inevitable results being less than the original sketch."

Schulz said much the same thing more than twenty years later, in his 1997 Comics Journal interview with Gary Groth (reprinted in M. Thomas Inge, editor, Charles M. Schulz: Conversations), where he said, "I don't pencil in. I draw it with the pen. ... I block in, so I'll get them in the right place, and the right size, but I draw that face with the pen when I'm doing it."

So, Schulz certainly used a pencil for his lettering, and a C5 penpoint for that lettering, and he used the pencil very sparingly in drawing his characters; but did he use the same nib for his drawings as for his lettering, as Gherman says? I don't think a definitive answer is possible from the photos in the book, but maybe someone else can parse them more subtly than I can, or can point me toward a source I haven't consulted yet.].

[An October 6, 2010, update: Joakim Braun writes, following up on the September 30 update above: "Continuing the Schulz pen debate, have a look at the Peanuts 60th anniversary book. CS says (pg 124): "I've never been one much fascinated by the tools. I  use simply a No. 2 pencil. I almost hate to mention the pen I use: a discontinued 914 Esterbrook Radio Pen. It's not a drawing pen, but a writing pen." There's a picture of the 914 here. Compare image of the Esterbrook 356, a typical drawing nib which Barks demonstrably used when doing those duck model sheets in the '50s. An image of the Speedball C series is here. The 914 is a pen with a sharp point, not a flat lettering nib like the C5. Still, it's a writing nib and not a drawing nib. Compared to drawing nibs, which are quite similar, the difference is thicker and more rigid metal and a very slight bluntness to the point (see images), so it glides smoothly over paper while writing. I have no doubt that Schutz's drawing tools and working methods varied over the years. Great cartoonists will get great results from 
almost any kind of tool."]

Comments

From Joakim Braun: I wouldn't necessarily take lack of pencil marks as proof that no penciling was done. It could have been on a separate sheet and transferred directly in ink on a light table. (Working that way would  also save a little time, as the pencilling wouldn't have to be  erased.) And very light soft-penciling can be erased completely leaving no trace. But of course you know that.

And, picking nits with Gherman: C5 is a flat lettering nib, I think. I guess Schulz might have used it with his thin-line 50s/60s style, but hardly with the strong, loose thick-and-thin style he developed later. That looks like it's done with a quill-type steel nib with a sharp point, like what Carl Barks used for inking. (as a matter of fact, CB's very expressive 60's pen line has always reminded me of Schulz...).

MB replies: It's hard for me to imagine Schulz—or, for that matter, most other cartoonists in his league—working with a light table. I have a couple of Walt Kelly originals, for instance, and the pencil remnants are clearly visible.

As for the type of nib that Schulz used, I'll have to defer to those with more expertise than I. His choice in such matters has surely been documented. I was obsessed with nibs many years ago, when I still hoped to be a cartoonist of some kind and was trying to find a penpoint that would camouflage my inadequacies. I eventually turned in desperation to the Rapidograph, the kind of technical pen that Robert Crumb used, but, unfortunately, you have to be Robert Crumb to get Crumb-level results with a pen of any kind.

[Posted September 29, 2010]

Satoshi Kon

Satoshi Kon bookMy computer troubles distracted me from taking proper note of the death in August, at age 46 from pancreatic cancer, of the Japanese director Satoshi Kon. Kon had completed only four theatrical animated features, as well as the thirteen-part TV series Paranoia Agent. He was working on a fifth feature, The Dream Machine, at the time of his death. We can only hope that that film will be completed as something recognizably Kon's. I've seen three of his features—Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, and Paprika—and he was clearly a major talent. It's our terrible misfortune that he didn't enjoy the long life of Hayao Miyazaki.

I have on my reading table Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist by Andrew Osmond, the author of an excellent guide to Miyazaki's greatest film, Spirited Away. Osmond's Kon covers all of the director's work through Paprika. It's a beautiful book, and I look forward to reading it as I catch up with the Kon films I haven't yet seen, and as I revisit the ones I have seen.

Andrew Osmond's obituary for Satoshi Kon, as published in the British newspaper The Guardian, is at this link.

September 20, 2010:

The Ducktators, in the flesh

The Ducktators, in the Flesh

In my September 12 item about Mike Maltese and the painting of Bugs Bunny that he once owned, you'll notice in the photo of Mike a framed photo just above his head. It's that photo that I've reproduced above. Taken in 1942, according to a mark on the photo itself, it shows three members of the Schlesinger studio's staff posing as the leaders of the Axis nations. That's Mike Maltese at the left, as Mussolini, his fellow writer Ted Pierce as Hitler, and Henry Binder, Schlesinger's principal assistant, as Hirohito or, maybe, Tojo.

Comments

From Eric Noble: This photograph truly makes me want to go back in time and see these men at work, to understand their work mentality and how they made their work. People like Michael Maltese and Tedd Pierce must have been very interesting people to know.

[Posted September 20, 2010]

September 16, 2010:

Craig Yoe Writes

I wrote last July 2 recommending some of Craig Yoe's reprint projects, specifically The Golden Collection of Klassic Krazy Kool Kids Komics. Craig wrote recently to respond to some of my comments in that post. Since my piece appeared so long ago, I'm posting his message here, rather than as a comment on the original post:

This book was conceived with no knowledge of the wonderful Art Spiegelman/Françoise Mouly book [The Toon Treasury of Classic Children's Comics]. BTW, the comic book industry was in a great part founded on anthologizing previously printed comics in compilations to primarily appeal to kids. Not a new idea, but a good one! Abrams, who is an esteemed and important client of mine, asked if my publisher and I, as a personal favor, would delay publishing my book, which was slated to come out first. We chose to honor their request.

The Klassic Krazy Kool Kids Komics book is not all public domain material and permissions where needed were obtained. I'm no stranger to negotiations and not shy to undertake them when desired as in this book. Similarly, as further example, permissions were obtained for my new book just out, Felix the Cat's Greatest Comic Book Tails (IDW), and upcoming books like Barney Google: Gambling, Horse Racing and High-Toned Women (IDW) and The Art of George Herriman and Krazy Kat: A Celebration (Abrams). 

While I love them—they are the reason I fell in love with comics—I made a decision to not include Carl Barks's Duck stories or John Stanley's Little Lulu stories in The Golden Collection of Klassic Krazy Kool Kids Komics, [but] not [because of] any legal considerations. For editorial reasons I preferred to include other stories by those two cartoonists.

I'll be writing more about Craig's new book, Felix the Cat's Greatest Comic Book Tails, in the near future.

Comments

From Mykal Banta: I am writing in response to a comment by Jeet Heer, regarding your recent review of Craig Yoe’s Golden Collection of Klassic Krazy Kool Kids Komics. In his comments, Mr. Heer compliments the selection of material in your book The Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Stories as well as the rigorous editorial standards exemplified by the recently released Toon Treasury from Spiegelman and Mouly. These two volumes, Heer writes, set the rigorous standards “by which all other comics anthologies should be judged.”

Why? That is to say, why create such a rigorous standard for appreciation or inclusion in a medium as freewheeling and fun as comics? I own and love the Smithsonian Book, and was thrilled with Toon Treasury; but any standard is a profoundly subjective thing. To insist upon such rigor certainly runs the risk of paralyzing and calcifying a medium that came into being as the antitheses of such weighty, academic scrutiny.

With regard to Craig Yoe, I am grateful he does not apply Mr. Heer’s exclusive selection policy and staunch standards when putting together a book. If he did, we certainly might have missed a ton of great comic book stories. In the genre that I love, kids’ comics, there was precious little previous to Yoe’s efforts. Recently, Mr. Yoe has published Felix the Cat, the Great Comic Book Tails; Dan DeCarlo’s Jetta; and Barney Google—as well as the Milt Gross and the Krazy Kool anthologies. In addition, he has an Archie book and a Bud Sagendorf anthology due out soon. In short, Yoe has edited and had published an abundance of great stuff available nowhere else - and continues to do so. So, what is the problem again? Some adherence to “standards?” For heaven’s sake, comics became popular in the first place because kids found a haven in this wonderful, temporal, trashy medium from the kind of scholarly, academic evaluation Mr. Heer now insists on. I swear, Heer could suck the fun out of bubble gum. Comics were meant for kids, after all, not middle-aged or aging men who tend to loose sight of the art in comics while searching for “Art” in comics.

And with regard to rigorous editorial standards, let’s back up a moment and consider: The rightly celebrated anthology from Spiegelman and Mouly, Toon Treasury, had within a Little Archie story, “It’s Friendship.” It was a beautiful story with beautiful art, wrongly credited to Bob Bolling. Every comics historian and Little Archie/Bob Bolling aficionado I know credits the story to a Bolling assistant, perhaps Bill Vigoda or his brother Hy. This mistake was a glaring gaff to be sure, but one that didn’t bother me much as I loved the book very much, thought it gorgeous, and applauded its publication. My “standards,” such as they are, allowed for this sort of error in light of the overwhelming positives the volume offered. I would think, however, considering Mr. Heer’s rigorous, unforgiving editorial standards—his need to subject all comic book anthologies and comic book scholarship to some stamp of historic importance and flawless execution—he might seek another book to use as the benchmark by which future comics anthologies are judged.

Considering Mr. Heer's recent scrupulous picking at the details of Yoe's Gross anthology in his review of same in The Comics Journal—an anthology which contained nothing close to the above-mentioned error—that would seem only fair.

[Posted October 9, 2010]

September 12, 2010:

Maltese and Bugs, corrected

Mike Maltese and Friend, May 31, 1971

[A September 13, 2010, update: Thanks to Paul Penna for providing a repaired and color-corrected version of the Maltese photo. I made a stab at such corrections myself, with Photoshop Elements, but then decided against the attempt. Paul's skills are, happily, far, far above mine.]

Over at Mark Mayerson's blog, you'll find an item about the painting in the photo above. The painting's current owner is the Canadian animator Greg Duffell, but when I took the photo, on May 31, 1971, it was owned by Mike Maltese, the great Warner Bros. story man. Milt Gray, my wife, Phyllis, and I were visiting Mike at his home on Velma Drive, just off Barham Boulevard between Hollywood and Burbank, for an interview, and he showed us the painting of Bugs Bunny then. The painter, he said, was John Didrik Johnsen, who painted backgrounds at the Leon Schlesinger studio for Tex Avery and then, briefly, Bob Clampett, before leaving for MGM to work again for Avery. Johnsen was highly unusual among background painters at the time because he worked in oils.

Milt and I interviewed Mike a second time on November 1, 1976. Early in 1979, I saw Mike again when I was in Los Angeles to gather illustrations for my never-to-be-published art book on the Warner Bros. cartoons. It was around that time that Producers Photo Lab, the excellent Hollywood shop, shot a beautiful transparency of the Bugs Bunny painting for the book. In a September 18, 1979, letter to me, Mike summarized the painting's origins:

As for the Bugs Bunny painting:

It was painted as a surprise gift for producer Leon Schlesinger by Johnny Johnson [sic], background artist in 1940. (According to Tex Avery.)

It was resurrected by me when I found it gathering dust behind the projection room, just about the time of "What's Opera, Doc?" (1954).

What's Opera, Doc? was released in 1957, but, judging by production numbers, it probably was in story work late in 1954. It is numbered as the second cartoon Maltese wrote after he returned to Chuck Jones's unit at Warner Bros. from the Walter Lantz studio, where he collaborated briefly and unhappily with Tex Avery. Mike was exceptionally accurate about dates and other such details, although he could throw up a smokescreen of razzle-dazzle when he didn't want to get specific about more important matters. The 1971 interview was like that, but Mike was much more open in the 1976 interview—and was, accordingly, dismayed when he read the transcript.

At some point in 1979 or 1980—I can't locate the exact reference—Bob Clampett told me that the Bugs Bunny painting was a gift to Leon Schlesinger from his unit. (I believe Bob also told me that Johnsen based the painting on a drawing by Bob McKimson, but I think that's obvious from the painting itself.) I wrote to Mike about what Clampett had said, and he replied on June 28:

Just doubled [sic] checked with Tex Avery just to make sure re that Bugs Bunny painting—I was right about it—

Here are the facts again:

—It was painted by Johnny Johnson and presented as a gift to Leon Schlesinger (just because) some time in 1940—by the entire staff.

—Tex recalls that while it was in the process of being painted Johnson & Tex would hide it out of sight whenever Leon showed up.

—And that's the name of that tune!

Mike died in February 1981, and his widow, Florrie, donated his papers to the University of Wyoming later that year. I had no idea what had happened to the Bugs Bunny painting until I read on Mark Mayerson's blog that Greg Duffell had bought it at auction. As for my book on the Warner cartoons, it was originally scheduled to come out in 1980, but Warner Books delayed it, and then, in 1981, delayed it yet again—flinching both times from the cost of color printing—and the second time the delay was permanent. I still have that transparency of the painting (and several hundred other such transparencies) in my files.

As is all too obvious [or was, until I substituted Paul Penna's corrected version!], my snapshot of Mike with the painting has suffered damage in the last thirty-nine years, most likely during one of my several moves. I still have the negative, fortunately, and I've been thinking about having fresh prints and scans made from that negative and a number of others. Unfortunately, my experience so far suggests that few shops today are prepared to handle such negatives, and their work can be both expensive and unsatisfactory. I'd welcome advice on how to proceed.

Comments

From Eric Noble: I would love to see a fresh print of the photos you've taken of the Golden Age artists. It really helps to add a face to the names. I don't know what you can do to do that. I'm not a photography expert.

It is a beautiful painting, although it does creep me out a bit. It's sort of like those Carl Barks paintings he did later in life. Creations of line are not meant to be rendered in full oil painting.

MB replies: I don't think that Johnsen's painting of Bugs can be considered "art" by any reasonable standard, any more than Barks's paintings qualify as "art." But I also think that, in Johnsen's case at least, his painting's artistic merits are irrelevant. The painting so strongly evokes the early 1940s at the Leon Schlesinger studio, where a lot of cinematic art was being made, that it more than holds its own as a wonderful relic. As Mark Mayerson says on his blog, "It is an artifact from a vanished golden age, evidence of what animation once was and no longer is."

I have to wonder if Eddie Selzer sent the painting into storage after he took Schlesinger's place as the head of the cartoon studio. Did he think the painting was lacking as art? Did someone persuade him that the painting's depiction of Bugs was out of date? Did someone take advantage of the change at the top to appropriate the painting as decoration for their own office? It would be interesting to know.

[Posted September 12, 2010]

September 8, 2010:

Avatar's floating mountains

John Benson on Avatar and IMAX 3-D

My longtime friend John Benson is best known as a comics scholar, and especially for his expertise on the EC titles, but he is also an astute commentator on the movies, and I look forward to his monthly emails pointing out the hidden treasures in Turner Classic Movies' schedule. He wrote to me recently to share his thoughts about IMAX 3-D in general and Avatar in particular, and he has allowed me to post those thoughts on an Essay page that you can find at this link.

The most sobering aspect of John's piece is the suggestion that in the future it will be possible to see IMAX 3-D movies like Avatar and The Polar Express only in a compromised version of that format. That really means it may not be possible to see them at all, since many of their virtues disappear as screens shrink and projection deteriorates. It's a commonplace, of course, that movies lose a lot when they're not seen in a theater, but I think that loss is frequently very small. Not in the case of those two IMAX 3-D movies, though, and probably others. They look to be as perishable as Cinerama. If you saw How the West Was Won on TCM recently—it's the Cinerama movie with lots of stars and a real story—you know what I mean: when a quintessentially big-screen movie shrinks to video dimensions, even on a 42-inch flat screen, it's hard for anything but what's stupid about it to survive. Like John, I think that The Polar Express, in its IMAX 3-D form, is an extraordinary film; but I won't quarrel with anyone who dislikes it but has seen it only panned and scanned on a DVD.

Speaking of stupidity, I'm sure you've noticed that the opportunity to watch Avatar on your smartphone is the centerpiece of a current ad campaign. Fortunately, it's still playing in IMAX 3-D, in a brief (and apparently unsuccessful) revival. I've seen it in 3-D, but not in IMAX 3-D, and I hope to remedy that oversight later today.

Comments

From Donald Benson: It's not just big screen films that exist only in compromised form. Animated
shorts (and comedies in general) that were designed and paced for a crowded theater are now seen exclusively by one sofa's worth of audience at a time.

[Posted September 9, 2010]

From Eric Graf: I don't know if anyone ever answered John Benson's question on where Avatar was projected in 70mm IMAX 3D (I just now read his commentary) but I can tell you one venue that absolutely did, cause I saw it: Anaheim Gardenwalk CinemaFusion. The image was so gorgeous that I was thoroughly entranced by the thoroughly mediocre movie up until the tree fell, at which time I looked at my watch and wondered if I really wanted to sit through the Ewok battle again. I stuck it out, but was fairly bored with the last hour despite the glorious image.

My only complaint about the image was that every once in a while you would see a little bit of a sideways jitter in one eye or the other. Small price to pay.

Someone from the theater came out before the show and told us that the IMAX people had to supply all their 70mm houses with a major projector modification specifically to accommodate Avatar. The system was never designed to handle three hours. He also said that's why there would be no previews. There wasn't any room for them on the film platter!

CinemaFusion declared bankruptcy and finally lost the theater in July. The new owners (UltraStar) have reportedly removed the 70mm equipment and are replacing it, and every other film projector in the joint, with conventional digital projection. I think Avatar was the last IMAX movie shown there.

John Benson replies: Thanks for this! Sad that this may be the last 70mm 3-D IMAX showing. Maybe someday the digital technology will catch up.

After the tree fell was about when my standard-screen system blew up, so glad to hear that the last hour was worse.

[Posted November 16, 2010]


September 3, 2010:

If Anyone Is Still There...

The site was quiet for more than a month in the summer of 2009, but that was because I was on a long road trip that included stops at a variety of libraries and other pleasant places. Some of the fruits of that trip have already appeared here, and more will show up on the site and in my next book. Unfortunately, my silence this summer has had no such productive cause.

I switched computers in August, reluctantly abandoning Windows XP, and for the last few weeks I have been dealing with the instability of Windows 7 (more crashes in three weeks than in seven years of XP) and the horrors of Windows Live Mail (countless emails corrupted or lost, dozens of deleted messages that keep popping up like zombies in my inbox). I have paid more than a thousand dollars so far to be tormented by perverse machines and software programs, with no immediate end in sight.

Beyond that, I discovered late in the game that I would have to upgrade my Dreamweaver software. Dreamweaver 8 won't work in Windows 7, but at least Dreamweaver CS 5 seems to be functioning as advertised. I expect to be posting real stuff by this weekend, but who knows.

Oh, and we're engaged in extensive remodeling of our house, too. That hasn't helped.

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