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INTERVIEWS

Ha Ha Comics No. 69

A collaboration by two of the three Karp brothers, from Ha Ha Comics No. 69, Dec. 1949-Jan. 1950.

Lynn Karp

An interview by Michael Barrier and Milton Gray

From MB: On September 25, 1990, Milt Gray and I drove to Lancaster, California, in the desert north of Los Angeles, to interview Lynn Karp at his home there about his years as a Disney animator (he has screen credits on both Pinocchio and Fantasia, and he worked on other Disney cartoons) and his subsequent career as a comic-book artist. I revisited the transcript recently, during my work on my new book about comic books, and I've decided to share it here. This is the complete transcript, which Lynn Karp approved without any changes, telling me in a letter: "You may use any or all of this interview."

I remember that it felt like a rather strange interview at the time, and not just because Lynn said a few strange things (like identifying Hank Ketcham as a Jew), and not just because I gave up trying to untangle the chronology of his comic-book career. He had just turned eighty-five at the time of the interview, but I don't recall, or find in the transcript, anything to suggest that his mind was failing. What made the interview strange, I now think, is that Lynn seemed to be embody so well what I've come to think of as a free-lancer's mindset.

Re-reading the transcript, I simply can't detect a great deal of interest on his part in the work itself, whether in animation or in comics. On getting assignments and being paid for the work, of course; on being treated well otherwise, certainly. But did the work ever excite him? (He does cite some of his animation on the "Pastoral Symphony" in Fantasia, but that's about it.) Was he ever surprised to find in a comic-book story a stimulating opportunity of the sort that the best cartoonists found? Not that I can tell, either from the interview or from what I've seen of his comic-book work.

In that respect he seems entirely typical of most of the animators who worked on comic books, especially Giggle and Ha Ha and the other Sangor/ACG "funny animal" titles: good cartoonists who were only too happy to meet the burgeoning demand for their services with pages full of fluent and superficial drawings. And who can blame them? But I'm grateful that some of the cartoonists who worked for other publishers—needless to say, probably, Carl Barks comes first to mind—didn't respond to similar circumstances in the same way.

When Karp talks about having to move to New York to continue working for Western Printing, he was most likely mixing up his publishers. I think that what he had in mind was what happened when Jim Davis's "shop" on the West Coast stopped producing stories for Ben Sangor's ACG line (Ha Ha, Giggle), sometime in the late 1940s. As best I can tell, the cartoonists involved had the choice of moving to New York to work directly for Sangor and his editor, Richard Hughes, or finding some other source of income. This was when California-based ACG stalwarts like Jack Bradbury began contributing to Western's Dell titles, whereas Karp moved to New York and apparently worked for both ACG and Western while he was there, as well as Pines. He was presumably right about the move, but almost certainly wrong about which publisher instigated it.

As the interview began, Lynn said he was born September 8, 1905. He died on August 20, 1992.

Karp: I was working on the Minneapolis Journal as a staff artist, and I heard about this test they were giving all over the United States, looking for artists. I thought what the hell, that doesn't cost anything, I'll take it. A couple or three weeks after I took it, I had a telegram: get out to California October 26, I believe it was, 1936. That's when I started with Disney.

I worked with Bernard Garbutt as an assistant. Bernard is gone now; he died several years ago. He was a nice guy, a hell of a good draftsman. I was sitting here, and he'd be sitting over there, and I'd say, "What does this animal look like?" Snow White stuff. He'd draw it for me upside down. An excellent draftsman, but he didn't understand how things worked in animation. Everything he did, I, as an assistant, took and made them work. I had to redraw them and make them work. They had a test at the studio for all the new artists. They had three or four new artists from Minnesota there; they came from all over the United States. They gave this test—and it was a technical test—to see if you knew how animation worked. I'm not bragging, but I did take the top spot for the whole studio, for knowing how the whole thing worked. This is what helped me a lot in animation. I knew how a pan worked, and why—all that stuff.

Barrier: How long had you been at the studio when they gave this test?

Karp: I started in '36 and I left in '42.

Barrier: But when did you take this test?

Karp: That was in '36.

Barrier: The technical test?

Karp: Yes. About two months after I got there.

Barrier: And you already knew about pans and so on. How did you know about it?

Karp: I read about it, talked to all the guys, asked them. I wanted to know what was going on. Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston were both living in a home in Los Angeles when we came out. I don't remember how I happened to find it, but I found out about this home, and I went down there and got a room. There was another young kid with me, from Minnesota. Ollie and Frank were both already there; they were Stanford graduates, I believe. Then there was another friend of theirs—I can't remember his name [Frank Teague]—who went home at Christmas, and the plane crashed.  But I enjoyed the studio; it was a challenge. I've got to learn how to do this damned thing—and I did.

Barrier: What did you do when you first went there? Were you in-betweening?

Karp: I didn't even do that. When I first got there, they took us through the studio, and I saw drawings piled that high on a guy's desk. I found out how to do them, and do them fast. I also learned that you would have an assistant. I had an assistant and four in-betweeners, so when I animated I turned my key drawings over to the assistant, he put in the rest of them, he'd turn it over to the in-betweeners, and they'd do the rest. Then we'd go in with Walt and sweatbox them and find out if it was going to work. If it was, okay; if it didn't, we'd go back and stick it on the Moviola and find out what was wrong.

I worked on Snow White first, as an assistant, with Bernard Garbutt. Then I worked on Bambi, Pinocchio, and "Pastoral" in Fantasia. Those were the four features. In between those features, I did some animation on Pluto.

Barrier: How long were you there before you became an animator?

Karp: About six months. As soon as Snow White was done, I started animating.

Barrier: What did they have you animating on first?

Karp: Pinocchio, I believe.

Barrier: You went straight into feature animation?

Karp: Yes. On Pinocchio, I did all of the cute stuff—the fish and the cat.

Barrier: Of course, Eric Larson had the primary responsibility for Figaro...

Karp: He was my supervisor.

Barrier: Did he actually hand out the scenes to you?

Karp: No; most of them came through Ham Luske. After I worked on them, Eric would check them out.

Barrier: But he wasn't giving the scenes to you and saying, "Here's how I want you to do it."

Karp: No, he didn't. Most of it came from Ham.

Barrier: It's always kind of puzzled me what a supervising animator did.

Karp: You mean like Eric. He tried to keep good track of what we were doing. We'd animate it, and he'd look at it and see if it looked pretty good. He'd say, "Okay, shoot it." Outside of that, he didn't have an awful lot to do, unless we had some drawings that weren't good; he'd correct those, and tell us what we were doing wrong.

Barrier: But he wasn't coming in your room all the time to see what you were doing?

Karp: No. He was down the hall. When I started at Disney's, we were down on Hyperion, in the old studio. That wasn't much of a studio, really. Then, as they made their thirteen million bucks on Snow White, they built the studio in Burbank, and we moved up there. I remember the first time I walked into that room: My desk was about the size of a grand piano. I had room over here for a couple of assistants—it was really great. I liked it. It was just fine until it got to where the pressure was too much. Pressure, pressure—more footage. What was I getting, eighty-five dollars a week?

Barrier: How much footage were you turning out?

Karp: Twenty to thirty.

Barrier: That sounds very reasonable, especially for Disney's. [I'm not sure what I meant here, since that figure actually wasn't "very reasonable" at the time. I may have misquoted myself. MB]

Karp: Yes. It was awfully hard footage, like "Pastoral." I had the opening scene in "Pastoral," with all of these little unicorns—eighteen of them. They came from way in the back, and over this hill, and down the hill, and into the foreground and through the water. It took me damned near a month to animate that. You can imagine, because every one had to be timed, and every one had to fit. I don't know even now how I ever did it. But it was fun, it was a challenge.

Then I did the Pegasus, the flying horses, on "Pastoral." I did a lot of those.

I can't remember all the scenes. In Bambi, I had a lot of Bambi and Thumper. In Pinocchio, I did the cat and the fish, the whole thing on that. They put me in that "cute" spot, whether I liked to be there or not.

Barrier: What was your specialty in Bambi?

Karp: Bambi, when he was young, when he was little. I remember a scene when he came dancing out in the winter, and the snow plopped off from a tree and hit him on the head.

Barrier: On Bambi, were you still working under a supervising animator?

Karp: With Eric; I was still with Eric.

Barrier: When you were on the shorts, were you expected to produce more footage then?

Karp: No, that was just kind of a fill-in. It gave you something to do.

Barrier: Did you work with a particular director on the shorts?

Karp: No, on the shorts, they didn't much care, because we were supposed to do nothing but features. But here we were sitting, and we had nothing to do, so they'd hand us a few scenes, here and there. I did some Ducks, too.

Barrier: They figured you were feature-level animators, so you could do the stuff without much supervision.

Karp: That's right.

Barrier: When you started in '36, did you have to deal with George Drake at all?

Karp: No; but I knew him.

[Lynn mentioned that his brother Hubie worked as a gag writer for Bob Hope and Martin and Lewis. "He was back in New York doing a lot of it." Hubie didn't draw; and Bob, Lynn's brother who wrote the Donald Duck newspaper strip for many years, "wasn't much of an artist either. But he put the idea across. He would sit down in a couple of hours and he'd have his whole week's work done."]

Karp: My brother-in-law, Don Gunn, also worked at the studio; he married my sister. They moved back to Connecticut, and he worked on comics back there. When I left Disney, I called him and said, "What's doing?" He said, "Why don't you move back here and we'll do comics?" So I did. I had two of them; one place was on 45th and one was on 42nd. I used to take the train in once a week.

Barrier: This was when you were doing work for ACG and Pines...

Karp: All that stuff, yes. Western...

Barrier: Did you work for Western while you were in the East?

Karp: I did a lot of it in the East; I did a lot of it out here. But, you see, all the stuff that I was working on out here, on Western's publications, they moved them back to Fifth Avenue in New York—lower Fifth Avenue. They said, "If you want to keep your job doing these, okay. But you're going to have to move back to New York." So we did; sold the house and moved back there. We rented a home—it was a beautiful place—in Connecticut.

Barrier: What year was it you moved back East?

Karp: 1950.

Barrier: And you were there how long?

Karp: Two years. And they moved everything back here.

Barrier: You said you left Disney's in 1942—did you take part in the strike?

Karp: The strike was on, yes.

Barrier: Oh, you left at the time of the strike.

Karp: I left at the time of it, yes. Because it wasn't getting anyplace.

Barrier: Did you go back in at all, after the strike?

Karp: I did, for about two days. Then I left and went back East again. I don't remember what that guy's name was, but he was a Russian, and a Commie, and he was the one that had led this whole strike deal; and I found him back in New York, doing the same thing, starting all over again, just like he did for Disney.

Barrier: Dave Hilberman?

Karp: That's it. He was a Russian as far as I was concerned.

Barrier: So your time at Disney's was the only time you actually worked in animation, is that right?

Karp: Really.

Barrier: Were you not interested in continuing in the field? You obviously were good at it.

Karp: I liked it all right, but it was getting to where the pressure was so much. You had to have more footage, more footage—and you weren't getting any more money for it. So I thought, well, I'll go do something else; I'll get along. I've worked for myself ever since.

Barrier: So you weren't interested in going to any of the other studios.

Karp: No. I went into the comic-book stuff, and the pay was good; I was making thirty thousand dollars a year. At that time, that wasn't too bad. I got along all right.

Barrier: What led you to join the strike?

Karp: Money. When I started at the studio in 1936, I got ten dollars a week. I made a lot more than that, but the reason I did was [that] they had a program of all of the new guys handing in gags for the different characters. I was making another fifty dollars a week on gags. That's the way I worked at the studio, until 1939. My brother Bob was writing for a radio station back in Minneapolis. He called me one day and said, "I'm getting awful sick of this place. Could you get me a job?" I said, "Come on out. I'll try." He had paralysis; he wore braces on his legs. He came out, and I got him a job in the [camera department], where he was just sitting—put this on, snap the button. He did that for a while, until he found out about doing gags. It was about three months, and he was doing the gags for the Duck strip.

Barrier: When you were doing comics like "Robespierre," for ACG, were you working for Jim Davis or some other packagers? [Did Karp ever draw "Robespierre"? Maybe not; I think that was a Ken Hultgren feature. MB]

Karp: For almost a year, Jack [Bradbury] and I both worked for Jim. Jim had a nice little deal going; we were down in Hollywood. When I left Minnesota, there was a young kid took over in my place, and one year later he showed up at Disney's, writing gags. But he had diabetes. When we were working with Jim, he went to work with us, and he'd get so bad he wouldn't know what end he was on. We'd have to practically carry him down to the corner and get him a bar of candy.

Barrier: Who was this?

Karp: What's his name? [Don Christensen] He's still alive; he lives down in Granada Hills. He did stuff for Disney and stuff for the other studios for a long time. I'll think of that. He was a very slight, not very tall. His only problem was the damned diabetes.

Barrier: You said you worked for Jim for a year or so. Did you work directly for the publishers after that?

Karp: I was doing comics by mail, and a lot of it down here, in Beverly Hills, with Western.

Barrier: Directly for the publishers.

Karp: Yes. And you know, twenty years after I left back there, Richard Hughes called me and asked me to come back to work. He was Jewish; a good-looking guy, and one of the nicest people. You can't tell me about Jews—I know about them. I worked for one in St. Paul, and I could have killed him any day of the week. This guy was just the other way around. He was up on 45th Street, and I'd bring the work in, and he'd say, "Hey, let's go to lunch." Then his wife would come in—and God, is she dressed. Wow! He was a good publisher; he was making money. You can just bet, if he was Jewish, he was making money. A nice man.

Barrier: But you said you moved to New York because of Western...

Karp: Yes; and their place was down on lower Fifth Avenue.

Barrier: I'm surprised that you had to move, because there were a lot of people who still lived out here who continued to work for them, through the mail.

Karp: Well, different characters, different magazines. It was the magazines that I was working on that they took back there.

Barrier: Oh, they were editing them out of New York.

Karp: Yes.

Barrier: Which ones were these?

Karp: I don't remember; about five of them. Some of them were MGMs. I did a lot of Tom and Jerry.

Barrier: I always thought Harvey Eisenberg did a lot of the Tom and Jerrys.

Karp: He was in the pictures—animation—wasn't he? This was just comics.

I did the Dennis the Menace comic book for two years, for Hank Ketcham. He was Jewish, too. [Actually, he wasn’t; Ketcham grew up in a Methodist family. MB.] The guy who was doing the comics, that I worked for, told me one day, "I wish you could draw much better." I said, "What's the matter with my drawing?" [He said] it was off a little here and there, but he said, "You've got the most gorgeous conception."

Barrier: How much of your stuff did you write, as well as illustrate?

Karp: I wrote a lot of stuff when I was in New York, in Ha Ha and Giggle and some of those. Then, when I came back out here, they gave me—I don't know what you'd call it, it was about this big and this wide, and it was eight pages, published weekly in London. Never did they ever get the damned stories to me on time. I finally got myself a couple of ulcers from that, so I just quit. It was too much pressure. Nights and nights and nights—it was the only way you could get it done. You can only draw so fast.

Barrier: Tell me something about Ham Luske.

Karp: He was always so very understanding. He'd talk to you about such-and-such a thing, and he'd get your ideas on it, and he'd say, "Okay, you do it the way you like to do it." He was very nice that way; I liked Ham.

Barrier: Besides Eric Larson and Ham, what other people there did you have much contact with?

Karp: That was most of them, right there. Unless I wanted to walk around and talk with some of them, which I did, of course. Jack [Bradbury] and I were very close. We'd always take our vacations together, and we did comic books together. Jack's having a hell of a problem now with his eyes.

Barrier: You mentioned that you knew Walt and Roy; how did you have contact with them?

Karp: Walt, I always had contact with him, because he did a lot of the sweatbox work, on Pinocchio and Bambi. When I had anything to be run, I had to go to the sweatbox with him. Walt was a pretty nice guy. He couldn't draw his hat, but he knew talent. He knew what he wanted, and he knew the guys that could do it. Roy—I didn't have much contact with him. He was the guy that engineered the place; he handled the money. Walt would throw out eight hundred feet of animation if he didn't think it was all right, and that didn't set well with Roy. Walt did throw out eight hundred feet, and Eric Larson had about three hundred of that eight hundred.

Barrier: This was for Bambi?

Karp: Yes. They threw it out! No good! I don't remember what it was. A lot of it was Bambi when they were older—the mother and father, the older deer. Most of it was that. What happened was, they didn't have communication between the directors. Here's one director that's going off here in this direction, and another one's going in this direction, but they're not keeping the story together. Here they were animating like crazy, and nobody knew what the left hand was doing.

Barrier: Who was to blame for that?

Karp: Walt should have seen to it that these directors all got together.

Barrier: Was Dave Hand in charge of it at that point?

Karp: Yes, he was.

Barrier: When you left, at the time of the strike, most of the animation for Bambi had been finished, hadn't it?

Karp: Most it was, yes.

Barrier: I guess you must have left some on your desk.

Karp: A bunch of junk, maybe. I didn't have much left to do. I wasn't trying to be mean; I'd just had enough of it. I just said, "Give me my check."

Barrier: They reopened after the strike, then shut down again and laid off a lot of people, who were primarily strikers. But you had left before that?

Karp: Yes, I left before that. I just came back and got my check. I knew where I was going, too—to Western. They had the comic-book stuff all lined up. I worked for Beverly Hills for ten or twelve years, I guess. They moved the stuff back East; that was before I got here [in Lancaster]. You see, I went back to work for them when I came back from the East. I worked for them for quite a while then.

Barrier: In '41, '42, they had an office in Beverly Hills with Eleanor Packer and Chase Craig—

Karp: Right.

Barrier: And later Tom McKimson.

Karp: Right.

Barrier: You worked with all those people?

Karp: All of them.

Barrier: What do you recall about Western's operations? Were they hard to work with?

Karp: Some of them were. A little bit squeamish—that wasn't quite right, fix that, will you? I could fix it—I have an electric eraser, what the hell, I don't have any trouble.

Barrier: I've heard that they actually had a drawing board set up there so that you could make corrections at their offices; is that right?

Karp: I'd take the whole damned thing home and do it, if I had to. I wouldn't try to do it down there.

Barrier: What kind of changes were they asking for?

Karp: Little drawing changes. The lines down here in his face aren't quite right—little things, picky. I put up with that; I probably should have killed the guy and been done with it.

Barrier: Who was the pickiest? Carl Buettner?

Karp: Yes. He died of a heart attack. He had an [elevator] chair that went up and down the stairs; they had it installed for him.

Barrier: After he had a heart attack?

Karp: Yes. But he was a picky son of a gun; just as picky as they come.

Barrier: Did you ever have any contact with Carl Barks?

Karp: I've known Carl and his wife for years. They lived down in Temecula. I had a show every fall and every spring in Temecula, at the Woods Gallery there. So I got to know Carl and his wife pretty well. He was writing Ducks, and he and my brother got along very well, because my brother was doing the Duck.

Milton Gray: On Bambi, when you were working on Bambi in the snow, it seems that you would have been working more closely with Frank Thomas. I thought he was taking the lead on that section.

Karp: He did have the section, but they gave me the scenes in it. You never knew what you were going to get. You'd get your sheet out and look at it and study it over, and get your mirror ready—do whatever you had to.

Barrier: But Frank wasn't supervising you the way Eric did, you were answering just to the director.

Karp: Yes.

Barrier: How long had you been at Disney's before you began assisting Garbutt?

Karp: Practically right away. I was there about a week and they put me in to help Garbutt. I was first assistant; hell, I had to reanimate everything he did.

Barrier: This was what really struck me: You were brand-new to animation, yet you knew what to do.

Karp: I have no idea why. I just knew how it worked; and I knew how it had to work. I knew that this pan, I don't care if it was ten feet long, it had to move a quarter of an inch now, and that figure, whatever it was, that foot had to stay on there—you didn't slide it. Garby'd have all the animals sliding any direction—rabbits, whatever. He could draw them, but he couldn't make them work.

Barrier: You said you became an animator right after Snow White, but animation of Pinocchio wouldn't have started that early.

Karp: No, I did a lot of the Plutos [as his first animation]. I got into the squash and stretch deal; that's what you had to know. I learned how to handle it. I had a metronome, and I regraded it for frames per second, so that I could say eight frames, four frames, six frames, whatever. You had to know this, for all these animals in Snow White—how many frames did you need to make them jump from here to here? I'll never know why the technical end of it was so easy for me. It was just easy for me—what can I say? I didn't have any problem with it, but I know a lot of the guys down there did. One of the guys had gone to Minneapolis Art Institute when I was there, and he came out here, and he was in Disney's. He was a good painter, but he just couldn't animate. A lot of the guys couldn't adapt to that model sheet—draw them just like that—and that's what you had to do. If you couldn't draw them just like that, forget it, because you aren't going to work there very long.

Gray: Had you watched cartoons in the movies quite a bit before you went to work at Disney's?

Karp: Oh, yes. The Marx Brothers—I must have looked at them twenty-five times, and every time, they were just as funny as they were the time before. A lot of the stuff, they ran it for us at the studio. When I first went there, I took drawing three nights a week. We finally got to the point where we took deer apart.

Barrier: Rico Lebrun's classes.

Karp: Rico—that's right. He was quite an artist. We did that for quite a while. But, almost as long as I was there, I was taking drawing three nights a week. You had to learn how to handle lines, because that's all you had to work with, was lines.

Barrier: Who was teaching the classes, Don Graham?

Karp: Don Graham. He was a hell of a good artist; and could he analyze! He'd take a painting by one of the masters, and he'd go through that painting, and you wouldn't believe what he found in it. It was a heck of a good education.

Barrier: When you were with Walt in sweatbox, what kinds of changes would he want made?

Karp: Mostly, he was very concerned with whether the point was being put across. A lot of these scenes were—what? Three feet? Six feet? It was all quick. In sweatbox, he was awfully nice. I never had any trouble with him, at all.

Barrier: His criticisms would be straightforward...

Karp: Absolutely. If there was something wrong in there, and he pointed it out, you'd see it right away: "Okay, I'll take care of it." You'd take it down, and put it on the Moviola, and study it, and see what you could do, and you'd do it.

Barrier: It wasn't carping little things, like the stuff you talked about at Western Publishing.

Karp: No, no. He wasn't that way at all. Walt was more concerned with the story, and it was a darned shame that sometimes he didn't get these directors together. That was what happened; that's why he threw out eight hundred feet.

Barrier: Did you have any contact with Dave Hand?

Karp: Not much, no.

[Lynn confirmed that he went to school at the art institutes of both Chicago and Minneapolis—four years in Chicago and two in Minneapolis—and got diplomas from both. He then went to work for an advertising agency in Minneapolis. When he worked for the Minneapolis Journal, he worked on advertisements: "They'd give me one at three o'clock in the afternoon, the paper went to bed at six, and I had to have it done: four columns, all the liquor bottles and all the prices. I learned speed, right there."]

Barrier: And what made you think that you wanted to work at Disney's?

Karp: Everybody had been talking about Disney's. I was working in Minneapolis, on the newspaper, and I did a banner that ran across the top of the paper and told the weather, the temperature. The first of January, the temperature went down to zero. For forty-five days, that damned temperature never got up to zero, in fact it went all the way down to forty-five below. I said, if I can ever get the hell out of this place, I'm going to go. Boy, was I tickled to see that telegram from Disney.

Barrier: You said you went straight from Disney's to working in comic books; how had you made your connection with the comic-book people?

Karp: I found them. I found another artist who was already doing the comic-book stuff, and I said, "Who are you working for?" He said, "Western Publishing, down in Beverly Hills." I don't remember who he was; he was a young guy. I don't think he stayed in it very long. But he was the one who told me to try Beverly Hills. So I went down to Western and showed them some samples of my work, and I went to work.

Barrier: How did you get work with Hughes? Did you send him samples in the mail?

Karp: No, he found me. Hughes and—what was that other guy's name? [Ben Sangor] A short, fat guy; he had an outfit on 45th. Hughes was on 42nd. I worked for both of them. I'd just draw a whole bunch of stuff, and take it in, and "swell!" I got a big check right then. They weren't picky; all they wanted to do was get those comic books out. [Hughes worked for Sangor, whose offices were on 45th Street in Manhattan, so presumably Karp was confusing him with another publisher.]

[Posted April 11, 2011; interview date added, April 17, 2011; revised, May 18, 2011]                                   

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