February 18, 2018:
February 15, 2018:
Stanley, or Not
February 12, 2018:
February 18, 2018:
In case you missed it, Harry McCracken has provided abundant detail about the Telecomics TV cartoons of the late 1940s, including links to YouTube samples of the series, in a comment on my February 15 post. Harry's comment is at this link.
February 15, 2018:
I enjoy poking around in the Dell anthology comic books of the 1940s, especially those edited by Oskar Lebeck. One of the more obscure of them, Red Ryder Comics, began in the early 1940s by housing a variety of Stephen Slesinger properties, but by 1950 it had become strictly a cowboy comic book, its pages filled with the adventures of Red and his Native American sidekick, the ludicrous Little Beaver.
I could never work up much interest in Red Ryder Comics when I was a kid, but recently Bob Barrett pointed me toward some pages and features in that title by Morris Gollub, one of my favorite Dell cartoonists, and I've followed up by scrutinizing some Red Ryder features that never attracted my attention before. One of those features, called Telecomics, was based on what the Slesinger company's website calls "a new film media in the 1940s that featured synoptic versions of popular children' s books and current happenings of popular comic attractions." I've never seen an example of Telecomics, and I don't know of anyone else who has, but its "comics" were evidently shown in a slide-show format similar to that of early TV cartoons like Crusader Rabbit.
The Telecomics stories that began appearing in Red Ryder in 1946 were initially burlesque science fiction that anticipated the Jetsons, but after that they wandered all over the place, finally serving as a framing device for reprints of the King of the Royal Mounted comic strip (another Slesinger property). The earliest episodes have a Little Lulu look and were probably drawn by one or both of the cartoonists Lebeck called in to help John Stanley with that feature, but the more interesting Telecomics installments, by far, are those that may have been written by Stanley himself. As I noted in Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books, first-rate Stanley is readily identifiable as his work, but second- or third-string Stanley can be harder to identify, and the temptation may be to see Stanley's hand where it's not. The half-dozen or so Telecomics stories that feel to me like his work have their moments, but they're not top-of-the-line Stanley.
I've reproduced below what is probably the best of the Telecomics stories, from Red Ryder Comics No. 42, January 1947; it bubbles with some of the in-jokes that Lebeck's cartoonists enjoyed adding to their work. Thus "Blackjack Stanley," who is drawn (by Dan Gormley) not as a caricature of the real Stanley, but, probably deliberately, as a much rougher-looking specimen. Teleboy's home address, 200 Fifth Avenue, is also an in-joke, since Lebeck's office was at that address in New York. ( "P. D. Garvits" sounds like a real name, but I have no idea whose.) I enjoy, too, all the stigmata of very early television: the tiny screen, the cheap sets, and what were in 1946 (when the story was written and drawn) still very small audiences. Only the interactivity between screen and viewer may seem advanced, but in this story it is a deadpan joke of the kind I associate with Stanley.
From Harry McCracken: In regards to your most recent post, there are a number of Telecomics on YouTube. Here are a few, which feel a bit like Clutch Cargo without the human lips:
Hake’s has also auctioned off Telecomics production art:
If Telecomics made it onto TV in 1946, they predated Crusader Rabbit, and might have earned a claim on being the first made-for-TV cartoons if they actually had any animation rather than being sequences of still drawings. I’m far from an expert on them, but did do a tiny bit of research on them last year when writing a post about 1154 N. Western Ave. in Los Angeles, where they were headquartered for at least a time, in the same building that once was home to the Mintz studio (and before that, as you mentioned in Hollywood Cartoons, an early form of Harman-Ising):
Dick Moores headed the company and did at some of the art for its non-cartoons, which presumably might help explain how a Telecomics feature—which I didn’t know about until I read your piece—ended up in a Dell comic.
[Posted February 17, 2018]
From Mark Kausler: I enjoyed reading your post on Telecomics and the "Maybe Stanley" story from Red Ryder Comics that went with it. It's interesting that the actor playing the Sheriff of Flapjack County in the comic book story is concerned that his TV show will lose it's only "listener" if the kid shuts it off. TV was at such an early stage in 1947 that it still hadn't shed its radio roots yet. Perhaps the little ten-inch blurry image common to 1947 picture tubes was listened to, more than looked upon.
As a matter of interest, the "Telecomics" series was the combined brainchild of Dick Moores, the cartoonist, and Robert C. Bruce, the actor and sometimes Looney Tunes narrator. Bob Bruce hired fellow radio actors like Lurene Tuttle, who did just about all the women's voices in the series, and Howard McNear, the radio voice of "Doc" in Gunsmoke and the television actor who was "Floyd the Barber" in the Andy Griffith Show, to play most of the parts in the "Danny March", "Kid Champion" and "Space Barton" segments of the Telecomics series. "Telecomics" is literally, illustrated radio, as Chuck Jones used to derisively describe Hanna-Barbera TV cartoons (and they moved a lot more than Telecomics did).
[Posted February 19, 2018]
February 12, 2018:
I've always had a small pile of flip books on my bookshelves—a Felix flip book by Otto Messmer that Milt Gray picked up for me at Montreal in 1967, personal flip books by Mark Kausler and George Griffin, an Oskar Fischinger flip book by his widow, Elfriede, a nifty little Snow White flip book published by Disney in the early nineties, and a set of a half dozen flip books by independent New York animators like Tony Eastman and Kathy Rose. Other flip books have fallen by the wayside. I used to have several that I bought at Disneyland in 1969, and I remember having a couple of MGM cartoon flip books that I think I gave to Mark Kausler many years ago.
Now, thanks to Pete Docter, I've been enjoying the second set of Disney flip books that Pete has overseen in between his directing duties at Pixar. The first set (which I haven't seen) was devoted to one scene each by the animators known as the Nine Old Men (Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Milt Kahl, Ward Kimball, et al.). I've voiced here, on more than one occasion, my skepticism about the very idea that the nine were the premier Disney animators, and Pete's new set, titled "Nine More Old Men," is a sort of corrective to that notion. The books in the new set—handsomely bound and beautifully reproduced from the original drawings—are of scenes by Ub Iwerks, Norm Ferguson, Art Babbitt, Ham Luske, Grim Natwick, Bill Tytla, John Sibley, Fred Moore, and Hal King. An accompanying booklet provides biographical information about each animator.
Hal King is the big surprise here; he's represented by a Donald Duck scene from TheThree Caballeros. But the animators in the new box are a shadowy group compared with the Nine Old Men. Most of them died before the Nine began to acquire the celebrity that Disney nourished. I realized, as I reviewed the names represented in the new set, that I'd met and interviewed only two of them, Babbitt and Natwick. Moore, Tytla, Luske, Ferguson—I would have loved to meet all of them, but they were all gone long before I made my first trip to California in 1969. Iwerks turned me down when I asked for an interview shortly before he died in 1971, and Sibley died in 1973, when my interviewing was still in its early stages. I'm not sure how Milt and I overlooked Hal King (who lived until 1986), but then, we did interview a lot of people who probably have as strong a claim to a place in the box.
So, these flip books serve the honorable purpose of giving more attention to artists who richly deserve it. But I'm not sure what I think about flip books in general: are they toys, variously simple or (like the books in the new set) sophisticated, or can they serve a serious purpose? What can you learn from a flip book that you can't learn from watching classic animation frame-by-frame on Blu-ray or DVD (or even, if you're a true dinosaur like me, CAV laserdisc)? I don't know the answers, but this is a case where the answers would be superfluous. The new flipbooks, through their excellence, are self-justifying.
From V. Martin: I agree with your assessment on the Nine Old Men legend. They were exceptional animators in their own right, but didn't come into prominence until long after Disney Animation as we know it was established. And there's really only two major features in which they were all credited as supervising animators together (with Norm Ferguson), and those films are not major milestones compared to Snow White or Pinocchio. Jack Kinney also criticized the Nine Old Men notion in his memoir by naming several artists "who contributed so much and deserved special tribute too" (most of them he names are showcased in this edition of flip books). I presume that some like Art Babbitt, whose contributions were eclipsed by his involvement in the strike, might have something to do with this injustice. What I find baffling is that Bill Tytla, an animator who is universally considered a legend (even by the Nine Old Men), does not get this sort of recognition. The whole Nine Old Men notion just doesn't hold water.
I thought that this series of flip books would give some due justice to the animators that laid the foundations of Disney Animation as well as some of the contemporaries of the Nine Old Men. As an artist myself, I like to learn about and study the individual styles and techniques of all these animators. The flip books sound good in theory, but I'd rather see a regular book (much like Andrea Deja's recent Nine Old Men book) that examines their styles; Or a series of flip books by animator that showcases some of their best scenes (although that's wishful thinking). Of course without some frame of reference, such as the animators drafts (which I'm thankful to Hans Perk for providing online), it would be difficult for some amateur Disney fans to identify the scenes by these artists that have been shrouded in obscurity by the Disney company. Something really should be done to rectify this injustice to these great artists and this edition of flip books looks like a possible good start.
[Posted February 15, 2018]
Volume 4 of the complete syndicated Pogo was published by Fantagraphics last month, with Mark Evanier and Eric Reynolds filling in for the lamentably deceased Carolyn Kelly and Kim Thompson as the series' editors. Here's what I wrote to Mark recently:
Last month [on Mark's blog], you noted the availability of the boxed sets of the Pogo reprints: “You can also order a lovely boxed-set of Volume 3 and 4 via this link or order the boxed set of Volumes 1 and 2 at this link for about the price of one volume. If you care about great comic art, these books are must-haves.”
Well, of course, which is why some of us have ordered each individual volume well in advance of publication, three years in advance in the case of Volume 4. I assume that having those advance orders in hand is helpful to Fantagraphics in setting print orders and otherwise. But the existence of the boxed sets creates a dilemma for Kelly devotees: do you order each book in advance, or do you wait for the books to be published so you can order the boxed sets? That’s actually what I’ve done with the Floyd Gottfredson/Mickey Mouse reprints, but those books are a lower priority for me than the Kelly volumes and also the Barks reprints, which again I’ve ordered individually in advance rather than as boxed sets.
The dilemma could be resolved if Fantagraphics sold the empty Pogo boxes separately after the books were published, but as best I can tell the boxes are available only when you buy the boxed sets, that is, when you buy books you don’t need if you’ve already done Fantagraphics the favor of ordering the individual volumes in advance. Perhaps you can encourage Gary Groth to make the empty boxes available at some reasonable price.
Although Volume 4 is, like its predecessors, self-recommending, I feel obliged to offer a caveat. The comedy in the daily strips in the new book is, to me, softer in focus than the daily miracles that Kelly was producing a few years earlier. Missing is the menace that is often lurking in the earlier strips, menace that typically but not invariably takes the form of efforts by some of Kelly's characters to eat their friends and neighbors. Other times, his characters seem to want to do no more than inflict gratuitous damage on those same friends and neighbors, and without giving much thought to what they're doing. I think about the wonderful trial of Albert the Alligator, when Albert's friend Churchy LaFemme, the turtle, warns Albert away from the trial on one day, then testifies against him on another, when he preposterously identifies a catfish skeleton as the bones of the Pup Dog. As harsh as such a précis might sound, the strips themselves are anything but grim, much funnier than the less abrasive strips of a few years later.
The earlier strips are what I would call "serious comedy," comedy that harvests the whole range of human experience, as opposed to the shallow knockabout comedy that's prevalent in the later strips. The Sunday pages especially are, I hate to say, sometimes little more than an embarrassment. But that's the price you pay to hobnob with a genius like Kelly. He's not always good, but when he's good, he's great. I don't know that anyone will ever say that about Ernie Bushmiller, at least not when they're sober.
From Jack Howard: I know Fantagraphics used to sell slipcases separately for their Peanuts volumes. I recall reading on their website that they had to stop due to a move that left them with a lack of space. But I share your desires and wish they would find a way.
[Posted February 14, 2018]
From Gordon Adams: I find your comments on the latest volume of Pogo reprints to be preposterous. Although you praise Walt Kelly in general, you single him out for criticism here because these strips do not contain the same level of “menace” found in a sequence from a previous volume. I’m sorry, but when I think of Pogo, “menace” is not the first thing that comes to mind. Or even the last.
Starting from their beginning in the comic books, Kelly’s characters were known for their bombast, pomposity, and ineffectuality. The fact that Pogo himself is one of the few level-headed characters only emphasizes this point. That he could portray menace when he chose to certainly reflects well on his creativity and versatility, but surely does not reflect his intent with Pogo as a whole.
What you did not even mention here were those aspects of Pogo that raise the strip to the top of the comic pantheon, specifically the artwork and wordplay. The early comic book appearances were frankly crude, and even at the beginning of the syndicated strips Kelly clearly was still finding his way stylistically. Although I would highly recommend all of the Fantagraphics volumes to anyone, I feel it is not until the third volume (years 5 and 6 of the strip) that Kelly really hits his stride, and volume four represents still more improvement.
Virtually every panel of every strip is a little masterpiece, with the character poses and expressions practically jumping off the page. And the wordplay, with its multi-level puns and continual mutual miscomprehension of the characters, is both a treasure of the English language and, I would argue, the philosophical heart of the strip — the ultimate point Kelly was trying to make about human relations.
Clearly you are a great fan of Walt Kelly, but your comments here hardly seem to reflect that — or the wonders contained in this most recent collection.
[Posted February 16, 2018]
MB replies: What I wrote about the new book was not intended as a comprehensive critique of Pogo. I've written about Kelly's work at length elsewhere, both on this site and in Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books (where, among other things, I discuss the characteristics of Pogo's exceptional language).. Nevertheless, I stand by what I wrote, "menace" included. In the early years of the strip, the best years in my opinion, "menace" recurs frequently, in the persons of Wiley Catt, Simple J. Malarkey, Sarcophagus McAbre, Mole MacCaroney, Seminole Sam, Deacon Mushrat, and even, very briefly, Mr. Tammanany the tiger, who in his very first panel can't help but eye Pogo as a potential meal. These characters variously turn on each other or, as with Sam, metamorphose into less threatening if not altogether wholesome figures. "Menace" is, if rarely a central element in Pogo—as it is frequently in the Uncle Remus stories with which Pogo is often misleadingly compared—a critical bit of seasoning in episodes that might otherwise become too bland. Blandness is, I'm afraid, a recurring sin of the later Pogo, however polished the drawings became.
[Posted February 17, 2018]