I went to the post office this morning to mail a few dozen copies of Funnybooks to people who helped make it a reality in one way or another, from granting copyright clearances to reviewing the manuscript to providing important information, or a combination thereof. The book's sales via amazon.com seem to be proceeding smoothly, and it has already picked up a few positive reviews. So far no one has pointed out any grievous errors, knock on wood. Although corrections haven't yet been necessary, I've been adding a few new facts to my page devoted to corrections, clarifications, etc., most recently some specifics about Oskar Lebeck's post-Western Printing career; that page is at this link.
No doubt Funnybooks will inspire a modest backlash, at least, from people who think that this or that cartoonist or writer should be represented in the book or mentioned at greater length. In some cases such gripes may be justified. I like Gil Turner as a cartoonist, for instance, but it wasn't until the book was at the printer that I finally thought of a good way to acknowledge his best work. If more of Turner's stories had approached the quality of his "Li'l Bad Wolf" in the May 1949 Walt Disney's Comics & Stories, in which the Big Bad Wolf disguises himself as himself, to very humorous effect, it would have been much easier to squeeze him into the book; but most of the stories that he drew and presumably wrote are much more conventional. That quite likely was the fault of his editors as much as or more than the fault of Turner himself, but there's no denying that most of his "Li'l Bad Wolf" stories aren't remotely comparable to Carl Barks's best, in particular.
Gil Turner at his best, with the Big Bad Wolf costumed as another version of himself for a school play (Li'l Wolf thinks his disguised father is actually a cat named Clarence). I've lifted these panels from Thad Komorowski's review of Funnybooks on The Comics Journal's website.
I've had messages from readers who are particularly happy that I've been able to reconstruct the history of the Dell/Western Printing comic books in much greater and more accurate detail than before. Some readers may wonder just why that reconstruction was so difficult. Surely, it may occur to such readers, many of the relevant records must have survived, and there must be multiple corporate archives that can be consulted. As to why that's really not the case where Western Printing is concerned, I can do no better than quote Robin Snyder, the last editor hired for Western's comic books. He was there when Western closed down its comics in 1984:
I walked in on the day management pulled the plug on the Comics Division and was horrified to find several dumpsters on the floor. Each was filled to the brim with comics, hard bound books, film, records, accountings, paintings, payment books and more. The management that had no use for comics and coloring books had no use for the history of the company.
That sounds all too familiar to me. I worked for a business magazine with a more than 75-year history, until it was shut down abruptly in 1999.
What followed over the next couple of weeks was massive destruction, as filing cabinets were emptied with very little regard for what was in them. Some people on the staff were so industrious that even uncashed checks went into the trash. In my own case, I made every effort to salvage material that had a comics/animation connection, like my files for stories on people like Charles Schulz and Bill Melendez, but most of my research files headed straight for the dumpster. That was no tragedy. You can find copies of Nation's Business on eBay, but I doubt that anyone is collecting it even for the sake of my interviews with Sam Walton and Dick Clark and other such business luminaries. The comic books have retained their value much better. But the proprietors' underlying attitude, that their publications were wholly dispensable, was certainly the same in both cases.
Speaking of Robin Snyder, his monthly newsletter The Comics ("the original first-person history," as he calls it, established in 1990) was a valuable resource for me, one that I can wholeheartedly recommend. There is no predicting the contents of any given issue, but almost always there are letters from comic-book veterans, typically illuminating aspects of the business that I wasn't aware of. A year's subscription is $30 from Robin Snyder, 3745 Canterbury Lane, #81, Bellingham WA 98225-1186.
And to close on a book-related side note: In other postings this year, I've expressed my disappointment with, among other things, the price of Funnybooks. The list price is $35, the discounted price on amazon.com is only 10 percent less. The New York Times noted recently, in an absorbing piece (at least it seems that way to me, as an author), that (1) amazon.com's discounts have been shrinking, and (2) book prices have probably been rising more rapidly than prices in general, particularly when the books in questions are out of the mainstream, as Funnybooks certainly is. No good news there, but at least Funnybooks has lots of company.
So why was my new book, Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books, shown on the Web as published on "Black Friday," November 28, even though it was nowhere to be found (as a printed book) for days after that? It took some yelling and table-pounding—I'm speaking metaphorically, of course—but the answer finally emerged from University of California Press. Most important, the Press corrected the mistake that was keeping the book out of buyers' hands.
In the later stages of my work on the book, I corrected the page proofs and prepared the index faster than anyone expected. That is why the book could be printed by Halloween, instead of by Thanksgiving. With Funnybooks sprinting off the presses, the publisher moved the publication date up a month. The problem was, whoever was responsible for putting books into retailers' warehouses didn't get the message. So, when November 28 rolled around, retailers had to tell purchasers that the book had not yet been released, which as far as they were concerned was absolutely true.
I relayed to the Press some of the complaints I was getting, along with complaints of my own, and after a few days matters were finally set to rights. "Amazon Prime" advance purchasers will get Funnybooks next Tuesday, or maybe sooner than that, and other advance purchasers will get their copies over the following few days—comfortably before Christmas, in other words. I'm still waiting for a box of author's copies to arrive, and when it does I'll start mailing about two dozen complimentary copies to people who helped me with the book.
There will no making up the lost two and a half weeks of potential Christmas sales, of course, but I've resolved not to grumble about such things after today. The book is a reality, even if somewhat delayed, and it has turned out very well. There's plenty for me to feel happy about, and I hope my readers will feel the same.
The John Stanley Little Lulu cover above, from the October 1949 issue, came to mind a few days ago when all the trees in my neighborhood seemed to give a sigh and dump all their remaining leaves at once. Stanley continued to draw the Little Lulu covers even as he surrendered the execution of the stories to Irving Tripp and Charles Hedinger. Those covers, drawn with such assurance, and with perfect command of the limited expressive vocabulary the design of the Lulu characters permitted, are one of the great unsung comic-book pleasures. If there can be exhibits devoted to Norman Rockwell's printed Saturday Evening Post covers, why not an exhibit of John Stanley covers?
And speaking of Stanley...he is of course one of the principal characters in my new book Funnybooks.
It was officially "released" a week ago, but so far only as an ebook, even though printed copies have existed for more than a month. I still don't know why printed copies are not yet available. In the meantime, I am trying to keep my temper and my tongue in check.
There appears to be a growing backlog of advance orders, stimulated in part by a great plug by Amid Amidi on Cartoon Brew. If you plan to order the book, but just haven't gotten around to it, I'm guessing that it would help to free the book from its warehouse prison if you ordered it now through this amazon.com link.
Many of you will recall the 1985 Disney animated feature The Black Cauldron, a last gasp of the Ron Miller era before the studio fell into the hands of Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg. I recently got this message about it:
My name is Brian Martin, and I'm from Chicago. I have been a huge Disney fan all my life, and I need your help. I started a Facebook page and petition that are part of a campaign to get Disney to release their forgotten animated film, The Black Cauldron fully uncut on Blu-Ray for its 30th anniversary next year. From what I understand, 12 minutes of completed animation and music were cut from the movie by Jeffrey Katzenberg soon before its premiere. Producer Joe Hale and his wife Beverly have already given me their approvals by signing the petition I started, signing another petition started in early November by someone else in Ohio, and writing some messages on my Facebook page. They told me the uncut master negative should be somewhere in the Disney archives. If you are interested, please go to these links to sign the two petitions, like my page, and share them with others!
I can't claim to be a fan of the film or the Lloyd Alexander novels on which it is based, but if you are either, or both, or you simply don't like the idea of a film's being subjected to that kind of mutilation, these are the links to the pages that Brian mentions:
[A November 29, 2014, update: Although the print editions of Funnybooks are still listed as pre-orders, Robert Forman tells me that the Kindle edition is available now for download, for $19.49.]
Today is the official publication date for my new book Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books. Exactly what "official publication date" means in my case, I'm not sure. I haven't seen another copy of the book since my advance copy arrived on November 5, and amazon.com still shows it as not available. I've been wondering lately just how available it will ever be. All authors are paranoid, but sometimes, as the saying goes, they really are coming to get you.
It has now been more than eight months since I last heard anything from the person at University of California Press who is in charge of publicity for the book. My emails to her have gone unanswered. No one has ever asked me to suggest who should get review copies. This is in complete contrast to how UC Press managed such matters for my last book, The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney. I've always known that Funnybooks would appeal most strongly to a relatively small audience, but the people who care about its subject matter really care about it, and there are better ways to reach them than by using some standard list for review copies.
That's assuming, of course, that there will even be review copies. Over the past year, whenever the size of the print run came up in my exchanges with people at UC Press, the figure bobbed around but always seemed to settle lower. In the process, the planned initial release of Funnybooks as a standard hardcover, with dust jacket, fell away, replaced by simultaneous release of a trade paperback and an unjacketed hardcover, both bearing high prices for books of that type. I have no idea how many copies have now been printed, but that figure can't be very large.
I've been trying for months to put the most optimistic possible construction on what the Press has been doing, and to be as cooperative as possible, especially since the actual production of the book—the editing, the design—has gone very well. Many people at the Press have done their best to make Funnybooks a handsome and appealing book, and they've succeeded. It's unfortunate that other people at the Press seem determined to fit it with concrete boots.
What's happening with Funnybooks is probably an example of a recurrent phenomenon that Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly identified when they were interviewed by Chris Mautner of Comic Book Resources five years ago, about their wonderful anthology called The Toon Treasury of Classic Children's Comics. Mouly, who is the art director for The New Yorker, said: "I've had New Yorker editors—perfectly respectable, intelligent people—explain to me that, because children's literature is aimed at this specific age group, and the author takes into account the age of the reader, it can't possibly be anything other than genre literature because of those constraints." Spiegelman added: "Tell it to Lewis Carroll."
Art gave me a great blurb for Funnybooks, but UC Press, true to form, buried it in a sea of gray type on the paperback's back cover, with no mention of his extraordinary Pulitzer Prize or his status as the cartoonist with the strongest literary/intellectual credentials. The back cover was the only page I did not see in page proof, even though I asked to see it specifically.
My essential argument in Funnybooks is that the best comics for children, like the best children's books of other kinds, are worthy of repeated visits by adults who are otherwise reading books that are not accessible to children, by virtue of their vocabulary or subject matter. I could go further: I think that adults who scorn the thought of reading Carl Barks, or Lewis Carroll, are most likely stunted in their reading habits generally. I doubt that more than a handful of people in today's publishing industry would agree, and certainly UC Press' performance to date suggests that the people there who control my book's fate are not among them.
Because my publisher is stifling awareness of the book, I can't imagine that it will be around for very long. That's a shame; it's a very good book, one I'm proud of, and despite its intimidating price, I can recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone who feels even a middling interest in its subject matter. But don't dawdle too long before you buy it.
And speaking of prices: Thad Komorowski calls to my attention amazon.com's offer of an additional 30 percent off print books, an offer good through Sunday, and apparently applicable to pre-orders as well as currently available books. There's a ten-dollar limit, but ten dollars off the price of Funnybooks brings the cost of the book down to a perfectly reasonable figure. Go for it!
Actually, I'm cheating. This comic book was published not in the fall but in the summer of 1949, according to the dating code at the bottom of the first page. (That code is "498," or August 1949, but Dell comic books bearing that date were published in late June or early July. I figured that out when I was a kid.) The lead story, illustrated by Roger Armstrong, is a Thanksgiving story for sure, with Porky and Cicero talking faux-Pilgrim talk (lots of thees and thous) and their Indian adversary talking the usual pidgin ("Me choose-um bow an' arrow"). Pretty silly stuff, but it doesn't pretend to be anything more. I have no idea how it wound up being published in mid-summer, but maybe someone missed a deadline.
Bob Barrett writes about this page of Frank Frazetta drawings:
I'm curious if you are familiar with Frank Frazetta's animation art that
he created for the various funny animal comics published by
Standard/Nedor/Better publications. Frank always referred to this work
as animation rather than funny animal art. What caused me to query you
about this is this piece of Frazetta art that I just added it to my
I became a Frazetta fan when I discovered "Dan Brand and Tipi" in Durango Kid Comics when I was thirteen and I began to look for comics
featuring his art after that. I was not familiar with his animation art
until after I returned to America from Germany and my discharge from the
Army in 1962. At that time I had begun to buy comics from Bill
Thailing. When he discovered my interest in Frazetta comic art he asked
me if I was interested in his funny animal comics; he had tried to
interest other Frazetta collectors in it but they weren't interested. I
told him that I would buy every Frazetta funny animal comic that he had!
I discovered that I really like Frazetta's animation art and, to this
day, prefer his comic-book work to his later painting and illustration
career. And I am especially drawn to his animation art.
During one of
my conversations with Frank he told me that he had once been contacted
by the Walt Disney Studio, asking him if he would be interested in
coming to work for them.
I questioned him about when this might have occurred, and he said that it
was during the time that he worked for Standard—1947 through 1949. I
asked him how Disney had found out about him and he didn't know, except
that he said thatone of the other Disney artists who
was drawing animation for the Standard funny animal comic books might have
showed his work to the people at Disney. I asked him if he had been
tempted to accept their invitation and he replied that he was flattered
but had no interest in moving to Los Angeles—he would have been
nineteen to twenty-one when he was doing the animation art, and he was
still living at home, was deeply involved in baseball, at nineteen he
had been named Most Valuable Player of the Parade Ground League in
Brooklyn with a .487 batting average. Also, he had a girl friend that he
didn't want to leave.
This page I just added to my collection shows, at the top and middle,
the character of Snowman, which he dreamed up in his early teens. He
created several booklets of Snowman's adventures; one was adapted by comic-book
artist John Giunta. Frank penciled and Giunta inked, and it was
published in Tally Ho Comics No. 1, December 1944. The other figures on
the page are good examples of his animation art. I feel really lucky to
have been able to acquire this page, as originals from this early are
quite difficult to find.
Frazetta's animation art for comic books has been reprinted in at least two books: Small Wonders (1991) and Frazetta Funny Stuff (2012).
Adam Gopnik, a staff writer for The New Yorker, reviews in the November 17 issue a new biography of Bob Hope by Richard Zoglin. I usually enjoy Gopnik's essays, but this one is a little odd. For one thing, he writes about Hope as a movie and TV performer but makes no mention of Hope's career in radio, and it was in radio that Hope's persona, as an aggressive verbal comedian, a joke teller who barely paused for breath, was most distinct. But most relevant here, Gopnik makes a comparison that I immediately rejected.
The real parallel to Hope—the great American comedian whose career most closely resembles his—is, of course, Bugs Bunny. Like Hope, he arrived in Hollywood in the late thirties and became a huge star with the war. Like Hope, he was usually paired with a more inward character who loves to sing (Daffy Duck is Bugs’s Bing, though blustery rather than cool), and, like Hope, his appeal rises entirely from the limitless brashness and self-confidence with which he approaches even the most threatening circumstances. Together, they are the highest expression of the smart-aleck sensibility in American laughter. Their fame in wartime may have something to do with the way that, as A. J. Liebling documents, the American Army itself was essentially an urban creature dispatched to deserts and jungles: Bugs, with his Bronx-Brooklyn accent, has somehow been sent out there in the countryside, among the hunters, as Hope ends up in the sands of Morocco with no weapon but street-corner sass.
No, no. That "of course" is the giveaway, an attempt to coerce us into embracing a statement that everything we know about Bugs Bunny and Bob Hope implores us to repudiate. Bugs was cool, Crosby was cool; Daffy was hot, Hope was hot. Bugs was Crosby, Daffy was Hope. If, as Gopnik writes, Daffy was "blustery"—and he was that, in the Chuck Jones pairings especially—any comparison with Crosby is immediately disqualified.
Perhaps some charitable soul should send Gopnik a DVD of the best Bugs Bunny cartoons and a CD sampling of the Bob Hope radio shows, taking care to include shows that include such audio equivalents of cartoon characters as Jerry Colonna and Vera Vague. Then he might apologize for such a boneheaded comparison.
An advance copy of my latest book arrived from the publisher last Wednesday evening, just as I was about to leave on a short wedding-anniversary trip. It looks very good, and I think most people who order it will be very happy with it. Not with the price, maybe, which is a little higher than I would like, but there's nothing I can do about that, and the price is in line with what University of California Press is asking for other books of similar heft. As I've learned, university presses are their own publishing world, a fact with advantages (more care in the production of the book, in everything from copy editing to design) and disadvantages (smaller print runs and correspondingly higher prices). I think that in this case the advantages clearly win. There is considerably more bang for the buck in Funnybooks than in—I started to write, "comparable books," but, in fact, there are no comparable books.
Copies should be shipping from amazon.com and other online retailers well before the end of the month, in plenty of time for Christmas.
Last summer, Justin Moyer wrote a piece in the Washington Post titled "All That Jazz Isn't All That Great," the gist of which was that jazz was, and is, a greatly overrated art form. It stirred up a lot of comment, most of it hostile. He listed five reasons for his negative judgment on jazz, but the one that I found most interesting was the third, "Jazz Stopped Evolving."
Back in ancient times—that is, the early 1960s—when I was a Northwestern undergraduate, I listened to a lot of jazz, along with classical music and folk music (and comedy albums by Lenny Bruce and Tom Lehrer). Sometimes, too, I'd venture into Chicago to hear musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Herbie Mann at the Birdhouse, a Near North Side jazz club that didn't serve alcohol and so was hospitable to underage college students. Not that I was sophisticated, not at all, but rock 'n roll was still emerging from its larval stage then, and what you listened to and liked a lot in high school—in my case, Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers—was not yet what you wanted to be identified with in college.
I remember very well when one of my fraternity brothers, who was from L.A. and relatively advanced in his jazz listening, played for some of us an Ornette Coleman LP called "The Shape of Jazz to Come." As Moyer writes, accurately, "Coleman's singular vision ... included atonality, a lack of traditional time signatures and uninhibited solo improvisation." It sounded pretty weird. We all approached Coleman gingerly, but I bought one of his LPs soon after, and more than one LP by another rule-breaker, John Coltrane. I now own boxed sets of CDs by both musicians. I don't play them all that often, but I like having them around.
Moyer says, accurately as best I can tell from my limited exposure to today's music, that there's not much difference between the avant-garde jazz I was listening to fifty years ago and the music that avant-garde jazz musicians are playing now. "It's as if jazz, music premised on aesthetic liberation, no longer has anything to push against."
Years after I graduated,, I talked about jazz occasionally with my older friend Martin Williams, my collaborator on A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics and a man widely acknowledged as the very best American jazz critic. I'd found my interest in jazz diminishing after college, and I once asked Martin, what am I missing? His answer was, essentially, that I wasn't missing anything, that jazz had stopped in its tracks. He had assembled a very popular Smithsonian set of jazz LPs, released in 1973, that traced the music's evolution from early in the century up through the sixties. When that set was reissued on CD in 1987, he added only one track, by the World Saxophone Quartet. Martin died in 1992, but I doubt that he would have found much more to admire in later jazz recordings if he had lived longer.
There's always the hazard when you write about the arts, the popular arts especially, that you'll either lapse into nostalgia for the good old days or embrace really bad new stuff just because it's new. I think Martin Williams was too intellectually disciplined to fall into either trap, and so I attach considerable weight to his skepticism about latter-day jazz. I don't know that he would have agreed completely with Justin Moyer, but I doubt that he would have disagreed strenuously.
I suspect that what is true of jazz has a rough parallel in the state of studio animation, the big difference being, of course, that the fruits of studio animation's stasis are mostly anodyne rather than abrasive. Increasingly, trying to keep up with computer-animated features seems as pointless as following the career of a pseudo-jazz musician like Kenny G. The feature cartoons coming from Pixar, Disney, and DreamWorks Animation—not to mention their lesser competitors—invite comparison not with the great Disney animated features of seventy years ago, but with the "smooth jazz" that is background noise in elevators and doctors' offices. They're that sleek and empty.
And so what? It's tempting to search for progress in the trajectory of every art form, and certainly studio animation's trajectory from the twenties on into the fifties can easily be viewed as one of steady and often dramatic change for the better. The Disney shorts of the thirties, the early features, the Warner Bros. and MGM shorts of the forties, even the earliest UPA efforts—it's perfectly reasonable to see in those films a thrilling expansion of the medium's expressive possibilities. That's certainly what I see in them, and that's why I've written books about them. And now, after a long lull that lasted from the fifties through the eighties, it's understandable why those of us who care about studio animation should want to see in computer-animated features, Pixar's especially, a revival of the upward thrust of earlier decades.
It's unfortunate that my Kenny G. analogy is more to the point, but there's nothing shameful about that. Other art forms, like jazz, don't fit the steady-progress model any better than animation does. The very idea of progress can be a snare and a delusion. In jazz, in classical music, in modern art, in theater, creative people have often embraced bad new ideas, then tried to find an exit from their mistakes without simply repeating what has already been done by other artists. Less creative people are, of course, only too happy to repeat what they've borrowed from their betters. Maybe that pattern has predominated more in recent years, or maybe it just seems that way, with every success or failure magnified by the huge sums involved. The financial rewards today for successful repetition can be very large indeed, in animation especially, even though the films are almost invariably insipid.
I watched Disney's Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949) again recently, in its new Blu-ray incarnation, in preference to a first viewing on streaming video of any number of new CGI features. I didn't give much thought to the possibility that I was wallowing in nostalgia. I knew I was making the same sensible choice that I make when I put Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" in the CD player in preference to just about anything I've heard by contemporary musicians who present their work as "jazz," whether of the Ornette Coleman or Kenny G. variety. But I'm sure there'll come a time when a new CGI feature will draw me to a theater and I will leave that theater happy to have seen something both new and good. Maybe it'll even happen soon, with, say, Big Hero 6.
No, I'm not thinking about today's elections, which I try to think about as little as possible.
With Funnybooks just a few days away from publication, I've been thinking about my book, and about such books—history books—in general. As in my two books that preceded it, I've written the preface (which I've posted here) in the first person, but the body of the book, the succession of chapters beginning with the introduction and ending with the epilogue, is in the third person, a convention that the novelist E. L. Doctorow addressed a few years ago in The Atlantic:
Insofar as any piece of writing has a voice, the impersonal, objective voice of the narrative historian is his stock-in-trade. The presumption of factuality underlies the amassed documentation historians live by, and so we accept that voice. It is the voice of authority.
But to be conclusively objective is to have no cultural identity, to exist in such existential solitude as to have, in fact, no place in the world.
Historians research as many sources as they can, but they decide what is relevant to their enterprise and what isn’t. We should recognize the degree of creativity in this profession that goes beyond intelligent, assiduous scholarship. “There are no facts in themselves,” Nietzche says. “For a fact to exist we must first introduce meaning.” Historiography, like fiction, organizes its data in demonstration of meaning. The cultural matrix in which the historian works will condition his thinking; he will speak for his time and place by the facts he brings to light and the facts he leaves in darkness, the facts he brings into being and the facts that remain unformed, unborn. Recorded history undergoes a constant process of revision, and the process is not just a matter of discovering additional evidence to correct the record. “However remote in time events may seem to be, every historical judgment refers to present needs and situations,” the philosopher and historian Benedetto Croce says in his book History as the Story of Liberty. This is why history has to be written and rewritten from one generation to another.
Doctorow's remarks struck me with particular force when I read them again recently, because in researching and writing Funnybooks I brought many facts about the Dell comics to light—you'll learn much more about Walt Kelly, for instance, than you knew before—but I decided to leave many others in darkness, and not simply out of concern for the book's length. The work of any number of artists and writers didn't seem to invite the serious examination that was so rewarding where, say, Carl Barks was concerned.
I do write in Funnybooks about Gaylord DuBois and Jesse Marsh, to cite a writer and an artist I've found increasingly impressive and interesting, but I say nothing about the highly prolific writer Paul S. Newman and almost nothing about the artist Tom Gill. I can't associate their names with comic books that I think repay an educated reader's time, comics that are, to use Doctorow's word, relevant. I mention Gil Turner and Harvey Eisenberg, two "funny animal" cartoonists I like, but only in passing. Roger Armstrong, another good "funny animal" man, turns up much more often, but as a reliable witness rather than as a cartoonist whose work invites reading and, especially, re-reading.
Other artists and writers filled many pages of the Dell comic books, but without making an impression on me. At least some of those artists and writers made an impression on other people, though, and perhaps, in the "constant process of revision," there will come a time when even, say, Ed Volke will be elevated into the pantheon.
Who was Ed Volke? Well, that's sort of the point, isn't it? You'll just have to read the book.
Thad Komorowski reminds me that thanks to amazon.com's "look inside" feature, you can read part of Funnybooks online before deciding if you want to spring for the book itself. You can access the preview by either going to amazon's page for the book or through a Google books link.
I've posted the seond of my two joint interviews with the great Disney animators at this link.
Thomas and Johnston's favorite director, Wilfred Jackson, at work on Cinderella (1950) with Mary Blair, one of several designers (Eyvind Earle was another) whose styling they admired but found problematic.
...and from two of the great cartoonists, Carl Barks (top) and John Stanley, who are among the principal characters in my new book, Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books. That book will be published officially on November 28.
According to amazon.com, another book by a great cartoonist, in the oven for quite a while, will finally arrive in my mailbox today. That's Volume 3 of The Complete Syndicated Pogo: Evidence to the Contrary, by Walt Kelly. Its contents: all of Kelly's daily strips and Sunday pages from the prime period of 1953-54. If you haven't already ordered that book, do so now, without delay.
I've posted a review of Garry Apgar's important new book, A Mickey Mouse Reader, that also includes comments on a couple of Fantagraphics' newest Mickey Mouse (Floyd Gottfredson) and Uncle Scrooge (Carl Barks) reprint volumes. You'll find that review at this link.
The Rescuers (1977) was still in production when Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston sat for an interview. This photo was taken around that time, as part of the publicity for the film. Wolfgang Reitherman, the director, is at the right, pointing to story sketches. The others are, from left, Dave Michener, Ted Berman, Johnston (kneeling), Art Stevens, Don Bluth, and Thomas.
Interviews: Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, 1976
With Milt Gray's help, I recorded hundreds of interviews during work on my book Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age. I've wanted to post more of those interviews here, since I think many of them make exceptionally enjoyable reading for people even modestly interested in my book's subject matter. One obstacle has always been the sheer drudgery required in preparing the interviews for publication, especially when they exist only as typescripts and not as computer files, but I think I've found ways to reduce that drudgery to a tolerable level.
The first interviews I've prepared under my new regimen are two with the great Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, the first from 1976 (with Milt Gray) and the second from 1987. I'm posting the 1976 interview today, at this link. The 1987 interview—which I've almost finished editing and laying out for publication here—will follow in a few days.
The 1976 interview took place during a long low point in the Disney studio's animation history, a low point memorialized in Steve Hulett's immensely enjoyable series of articles on Cartoon Brew under the umbrella title "Mouse in Transition." The series has reached its eleventh installment; it is supposed to be appearing on a weekly schedule, but unfortunately isn't. Each new installment is well worth waiting for.
In editing the Thomas and Johnston interviews, I was reminded again of a passage on page 18 of The Illusion of Life that has always bothered me. It's in a part of the book where Frank and Ollie write about how humans and animals communicate through universally understood actions:
The actor is trained to know these symbols of communication because they are his tools in trade. Basically, the animator is the actor in animated films. He is many other things as well; however, in his efforts to communicate his ideas, acting becomes his most important device. But the animator has a special problem. On the stage, all the ... symbols are accompanied by some kind of personal magnetism that can communicate the feelings and attitudes equally as well as the action itself. There is a spirit in this kind of communication that is extremely alive and vital. However, wonderful as the world of animation is, it is too crude to capture completely that kind of subtlety. [Emphasis supplied.]
As I've said before, most recently in a February 3, 2012, post, my thought when I read this for a second or third time back in the '90s was, well, OK, if that's the case, why bother? If there are absolute limits to what you can achieve in character animation—if what you're able to do will inevitably seem crude compared with the subtlety of live acting—why not find some better way to spend your time?
In the past, there was an obvious answer: fantasy, as presented through hand-drawn character animation, could be more convincing on the screen than the clumsy live-action equivalent. What happens on the screen in Pinocchio is simply more believable than what happens in a live-action fantasy like The Thief of Bagdad or, dare I say it, The Wizard of Oz. In many recent movies, though, computer animation has been used very effectively to sand away live-action fantasy's rough edges. In such movies, the boundary between live action and animation has been all but erased. Because the cool perfection of computer-generated imagery commands belief as even the best hand-drawn animated fantasy never could, the computer has destroyed hand-drawn animation's advantage as a vehicle for fantasy.
If you accept Thomas and Johnston's statement about character animation's limitations—which they made, of course, long before computer animation reached anything like its current state of refinement—there's no reason to lament hand-drawn animation's subordination to CGI, or its impending demise (except as it survives in television animation that makes no pretense of inviting a suspension of disbelief). Certainly there's no need for distress if you believe, as Thomas and Johnston often seem to argue in their book, that the dull, literal animation of the Disney features of the 1970s is the best that hand-drawn animation can offer,
If, however, you believe with me that animation of the kind that Frank Thomas contributed to the Disney features twenty and thirty years earlier—for example, his fantastically subtle and brilliantly caricatured animation of Captain Hook—is not only missing from all contemporary computer animation but is beyond its reach, you may not be so sanguine about animation's future.
Adjusting to that new address, after many years with Comcast, has consumed too much time, and this site has gone neglected for too long. I have several things in the oven, including a couple of joint interviews with Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston from 1976 and 1987, and reviews of some significant new books. Working on this site is very enjoyable for me, especially now that Funnybooks is finished and I need other ways to exercise my writing muscles, so I hope to be back to posting on a semi-regular schedule very soon.
According to amazon.com, the publication date for Funnybooks has moved up about a month, to November 28. The publisher's website is not quite so specific, settling for "November 2014." In any case, the book will be in print (or in pixels, as an e-book) in about a month. Its price remains high for a paperback, I think, and I wish it were a little lower. That may happen yet, at least for purchases through online retailers like amazon, if there are enough advance orders.
It occurred to me that a preview of Funnybooks might be useful to prospective purchasers, and that my preface might serve that purpose. Many readers skip prefaces, and that can be unfortunate; a preface allows an author to speak in the first person, which he may not be able to do in the body of the book without getting in the way of his subject matter. I wrote my preface at the very end of work on the book, and it accurately reflects my sentiments after many months of reading comic books and writing about them. Here it is:
I am sure there were people in mid-twentieth century America who began reading comic books after they reached adulthood, but there cannot have been many such people compared with the millions for whom comics were among their earliest reading experiences. I was one such child, many years ago; I “read” aloud Walt Kelly stories in Animal Comics to my stuffed animals before I could make out the words. My childhood attachment to comic books was unusually strong. I dreamed of being a cartoonist, and I can remember clearly when and where I first saw many of my comic books, on a newsstand or in a variety store or at a friend’s home, even though my memories of my teachers and classmates have dimmed almost to the point of vanishing.
Memories like mine are at once so commonplace and so particular to the person doing the remembering that there can be no point in devoting much attention to them here. What really matters about comic books, especially old comics like the ones from the 1940s and 1950s that are the principal subjects of this book, is whether they repay reading today, and not just by elderly people who want to bathe in nostalgia.
Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books is my answer to that question, and my answer is, of course, yes. A qualified yes, to be sure, since most comic books, from any period, have very little to recommend them. At two times, separated by about thirty years, I devoted hundreds of hours to reading and re-reading old comics, trying to sift out the best of them. The first time was when the late Martin Williams and I were choosing stories to include in A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics (1982). I made my second and more intensive survey when I was writing this book. In both cases, nostalgia wound up playing no role in choosing stories to reprint in the Smithsonian book or write about in this one.
When I was a boy, I read every kind of comic book, as most children did, but the comics that attracted me most strongly, and that I read and re-read, were produced by Western Printing & Lithographing Company and published under the Dell label. “Dell Comics Are Good Comics” was the company’s slogan in the 1950s. Not every Dell comic was good, by any means, and certainly there were comic books from other publishers that repaid multiple readings; but, in work on this book, as when I was a child, I became aware of how distinct the Dell comics were from those of every other publisher, and how much better the best Dell comics were than almost all other comic books.
My initial plan was to cast my net wider, but eventually Funnybooks became a history of the Dell comic books, concentrating on the years before comics of all kinds fell under the censor’s axe and with only a nod to great cartoonists like Harvey Kurtzman and Will Eisner, whose work was for other publishers. Kurtzman and Eisner, and other artists like them, have already been the subjects of books, in some cases many books, but there has been no book like this one. At that, my book is only a partial history of Dell and Western Printing, so there are names missing from the index that many devotees of the Dell titles will expect to find, or to find mentioned more often. But although Dell published the work of many writers and artists who deserve to be admired, it published only a few whose work demands to be read, Carl Barks (Donald Duck), John Stanley (LittleLulu), and Walt Kelly chief among them.
Dell never did more than dabble in superheroes, the genre that for many people has long defined what is meant by the term “comic book.” The absence of superheroes was a large part of Dell’s appeal for me. When I was a boy I never cared for any comics of that kind, except for a brief infatuation with the light-hearted Captain Marvel titles. More recently, I have come to appreciate the tongue-in-cheek quality of many of Will Eisner’s “Spirit” stories and Stan Lee’s early-1960s stories with the Marvel superheroes. But superhero comic books in general, and especially those with the more serious superheroes, like Superman and Batman, have always seemed to me hopelessly inferior to the best comics with “funny animals” like Donald Duck. I found a clue as to why I have felt that way in what a respected science-fiction writer has written of Superman: “He is our universal longing for perfection, for wisdom and power used in service of the human race.”
That is true, surely. But in the twentieth century, that longing for perfection was expressed not just in a benign form through Superman and the superheroes that followed him, each of them sharing a larger or smaller piece of Superman’s perfection, but also in odious totalitarian ideologies that pursued perfection through mass murder. The longing for perfection is a deeply suspect longing, even when it comes cloaked in the innocent wish-fulfillment that the superheroes have always offered.
I have always strongly preferred comic books with characters of a different kind—funny characters most of them, cartoon animals many of them, who on the rare occasions when they aspire to wisdom and power invariably reveal, with comical flourishes, their hopeless imperfectibility. Characters, that is, very much like their readers.
I'm a sucker for photos of Walt Disney with children and animals. Walt always seems to be enjoying himself, as in this picture taken during the filming of Pollyanna (1960), with its young stars Hayley Mills and Kevin Corocoran. And then there were the introductions to the weekly Disney TV show when Walt was filmed with adorable animals—as with his toy poodle, Lady, for the 1957 show called "The Best Doggoned Dog in the World," and with four luxuriously fuzzy cats for a 1965 showing of The Three Lives of Thomasina. In every case Walt looks relaxed and very happy to be in the company of kids or animals (and the kids and animals seem to like him, too).
In watching Walt, I'm often conscious of the tremendous gap between the rather small, intensely personal company that he commanded and the gargantuan Walt Disney Company of today. It can be stressful to deal with that very large company. I sought its permission to reproduce ten copyrighted illustrations (one photo and nine excerpts from Carl Barks stories) in my new book Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books. That permission ultimately was granted, for a reasonable fee, but the process took longer, and was more difficult, than my negotiations with other copyright holders. I feared for months that I would have to do without any Barks in the book, a chilling thought.
The delays and complications were mostly a consequence, I think, not of anything to do with my request, but of the company's size and the demands its size imposes. Asking a huge company to act expeditiously is like asking an elephant to tap dance. In fact, the outcome might not have been as happy for me if my dealings with today's Disney were as "personal" as some of my dealings with the much smaller Disney of a few decades ago. I recall getting turndowns then, some rather brusque, from people I'd met and even knew on a first-name basis.
Today's Disney is much larger and more bureaucratic, but it actually may not be quite bureaucratic enough. The point of a well-conceived bureaucracy, we often forget, is not to create an obstacle course for ordinary people but to reduce the arbitrariness we encounter in our dealings with large, powerful organizations, the Walt Disney Company being one such. Filling out those forms, answering those questions, paying those fees—it's all, or should be, a way to manage encounters between an organization and its supplicants to the benefit of everyone involved.
I've often wondered, when contemplating my own experiences with Disney, and the experiences of other people, whether anyone at the company has given serious thought to exactly what is to be accomplished in responding to requests like mine, that is, requests from people who are not in some sense Disney employees. To me, the answer seems obvious: the Disney cartoons and Carl Barks's comic-book stories, to cite only Disney products I particularly care about, are important parts of American culture, and it's to everyone's benefit if people watch them, read them, think about them, and talk about them. Books like mine contribute to that discussion, on however small a scale. But is that the way that people in the company think, or are requests like mine a nuisance that's tolerated for reasons no one has articulated? I really have no idea.
I've written in the past of Andreas Deja and Glen Keane as two latterday Disney animators (both have now left the studio) whose best work can withstand comparison with that of animators from the studio's "golden age." I know of no reason to alter that judgment, but I've been baffled by a couple of recent developments.
Deja has written a book called The Nine Old Men: Lessons, Techniques, and Inspiration from Disney's Greatest Animators; it will be published next February by Focal Press. My problems begin with the title. Disney's Greatest Animators? Really? So, John Lounsbery and Les Clark were greater than Bill Tytla and Fred Moore and Ham Luske and Art Babbitt, to name just a few? If, unlike me, you don't have trouble with the whole beaten-to-death Nine Old Men idea, there's still the fact that this book will be appearing in the wake of John Canemaker's very large and very thorough 2001 book on the Nine Olds, not to mention Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston's Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life (1981). Frank and Ollie wrote other books about Disney animation after their first, and those books were very thin gruel. What is there left to say on this subject, except to chant what has become a secular liturgy about how unutterably wonderful the Nine Olds were? I guess we'll just have to read the book to find out.
Glen Keane's post-Disney work has included, most recently and most notably, a very short short (less than four minutes) called Duet, a compressed love story presented through hand-drawn white lines over deep blue. As Amid Amidi reported on Cartoon Brew last June, "The short is the third in Google’s series of Spotlight Stories that are designed to explore the possibilities of interactive animation on mobile devices." As the characters move on your smartphone's screen, you will have to move your phone to keep up with them. The idea, I suppose, is to stretch the boundaries of a smartphone's four- or five-inch screen. If you're moving the phone around to follow the characters, the space they occupy will seem larger than it would if the screen were static.
Regardless, what I found dismaying about Duet was not the technology, but the short's gauzy, retrograde feeling. It reminded me of nothing so much as the Disney package features of the mid-1940s, and the simpering prettiness of several segments in Make Mine Music in particular. Keane's animation, like so much Disney animation of recent decades, is essentially naturalistic, but in Duet it's in the service of ideas that resist that label. For instance, the two babies seen in the opening moments lack genitalia, and that lack is much more conspicuous than any sketchily suggested privates might have been (I kept feeling the urge to look away from what wasn't there). And is that supposed to be the same frisky dog throughout the short, which covers, what, sixteen years or more, longer than most dogs live? After several viewings I can't shake off such petty reservations about Duet. Rather, they grow stronger. Here again, I simply don't understand what a fine animator is up to.
[A September 10, 2014, update: As Michael Jones reminds me, you can see Duet, and a brief making-of short, at this link.]
Dana writes: "Copies of Duckburg Times issues 14 through 24/25 (except 22) are now being sold by me on eBay. This is from the stock of back issues I have had all these years. My brother kindly is handling the sales and since we started selling them earlier this year we have had fairly steady sales. I've been doing what I can to let comics, animation and Carl Barks fans know that these are available and at reasonable rates ($5 per issue, with double issues #17/18 and #24/25 going for $7 each). Getting these into the hands of people who appreciate the works of Walt Disney and Carl Barks is something that makes me very happy." To see what's available, go to ebay.com and enter "duckburg times" in the search field.
I submitted the index and the last few corrected page proofs for my next book, Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books, to University of California Press a few days ago, so the book is now well on its way to publication before the end of the year.
It's in the nature of such books that additional information will trickle in when it's just barely too late to include it in the book, and that has been true with Funnybooks. Rather than let that fresh information go to waste, though, I've gone ahead and posted a page of corrections, clarifications, and second thoughts, like those I've posted for some of my other books. What I've posted on the new page adds to rather than corrects what will be in the book, but there's no reason to let good stuff go to waste.
I haven't yet seen the back cover, but I can tell you that it will have blurbs by Art Spiegelman and Maggie Thompson, two people who know their funnybooks. Maggie told me in an email, after sending her blurb: "My jaw dropped with delighted astonishment at the incredible wealth of information in your book. SO much I'd yearned to know and figured I'd never learn! Wow!"
After having read the book multiple times myself in the last few weeks, I can say without blushing that I'm very pleased with it. I hope you'll like it, too. Here's a link to amazon.com's page for Funnybooks. I continue to be disappointed in the price, but that's a problem that should resolve itself if there are enough pre-orders to assuage the publisher's worries about the size of the market for such a book.
And now, with a lot of very time-consuming work on Funnybooks out of the way, I can get back to posting here.
..as I was in my July 23 post, Bob Barrett has come up with another one, a pinup offered to subscribers to Raggedy Ann and Andy at various times over the life of that title as a monthly comic book, between 1946 and 1949.. If, like Bob, you're sharp-eyed when it comes to cartoonists' styles, you'll recognize this pinup as the work not of George Kerr, who drew almost all of the Raggedys' stories throughout that decade, but of Morris Gollub, another Dell/Western Printing stalwart. Like some other Dell pinups I've seen over the years, this one doesn't repay close scrutiny of the situation it depicts. Why exactly is Raggedy Ann cuddling those two dolls (who are unusually small), considering that she's a doll herself? Wouldn't it make more sense if she were cuddling the two bunnies, with Raggedy Andy and the other dolls looking on? And why am I devoting even a moment's thought to such questions?
Bob Barrett points out that another Dell subscription premium that I mentioned in that July 23 post, "The Disney Gang at the Circus," a fabulous little poster by Walt Kelly, has been reproduced—not well enough and not large enough, I'm sorry to say—in Walt Kelly: The Life and Art of the Creator of Pogo by Thomas Andrae and Carsten Laqua, page 60.
...to the question I raised near the end of the previous item. A friend wrote, in regard to my July 23 post: "As to your latest blog entry about the Dell poster—how fanboy of you to post 'Look at the hot collectible I just bought.'" When I read that, tears of joy filled my eyes. For decades, I've been condemned as a surly misanthrope, quite the opposite of the true fanboy. Another author declares in the preface to his book about animation: "I love cartoons." Not me. I love some cartoons, I like others, and I dislike or loathe a great many more. I would feel silly saying "I love cartoons," and where comics are concerned, my dislikes are even more pronounced. No true fanboy would admit to discriminating in that manner, but like an incorrigible sinner who has been redeemed through one selfless act, I have entered the fanboy paradise by sharing my Dell pinup with all of you. If I may once again quote the immortal words of Albert the Alligator, it makes a man humble, and quietly proud.
And now, just to confirm my new status, here are some very fannish artifacts: a few photos from my May 1971 trip to Disneyland, a delayed honeymoon, no less, on which I seem to have made a special effort to seek out attractions that would be scrapped and thus become the objects of fanboy nostalgia. The Skyway to Tomorrowland! The Pack Mules Through Nature's Wonderland! You shoulda been there, kids.
If there are any Disneyland aficionados in the audience, and you see anything noteworthy in these photos (other than my very young bride, who's looking back from one of the mules), please share your knowledge with us.
The item above, a pinup depicting eighteen Dell comic-book characters, was first offered as a subscription premium in the Dell comics of the 1950 Christmas season, the issues dated December 1950 and January 1951. Those were also the first issues to offer membership in the Dell Comics Club, an organization whose members were entitled to "privileges" that were, as best I can tell, confined to owning the membership card, one of which I still have, from 1956. I've just posted a better scan of my card at this link.
I coveted the pinup (which measures 8 x 10 inches) for decades, but the few times I saw it offered for sale it was for a much higher price than I could justify paying. But then it turned up on eBay a few weeks ago, and to my surprise I was able to buy it for what I considered a reasonable price, maybe because the listing didn't have the right keywords to alert other potential purchasers. Whatever, I have it now (in the original Dell Publishing mailing envelope!), and it will soon be framed near my other subscription-premium treasure, the Walt Kelly-drawn "Disney Gang at the Circus" sheet from 1949, which was sent to subscribers to Walt Disney's Comics & Stories. You can have your Van Goghs—some of us want real art on our walls.
Unfortunately, the Dell pinup arrived too late to be included in my new book, Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books. That book is a few days ahead of schedule. Page proofs arrived Monday evening, and publication is still scheduled for December. Funnybooks has turned out very well, I think, although I have yet to decide whether I should squeeze a few late-arriving bits of information into the page proofs. After months of trying, I finally learned the other day the date when Oskar Lebeck, the most important Dell editor, became a U.S. citizen (he immigrated from Germany). Is that fact significant enough to risk messing up a page? I don't know yet.
I should remove the "Disney Gang" pinup from its frame and scan it for this site, since it is certainly a superior piece of work—it's pure Walt Kelly from the period when he was approaching his peak. The authorship of the Dell pinup is less certain, but Bob Barrett, who owns a copy and has given it some study, believes a single artist was responsible. I think that's right. My first thought, when I saw the pinup in reduced size on comic-book back covers as part of a subcription ad, was that it must have been patched together from tracings of comic-book panels by a variety of artists, but I didn't recognize any possible sources. The more I look at the pinup (well, OK, I haven't spent hours contemplating it), the more I think it's the work of Dan Gormley, a Western Printing & Lithographing standby who worked in both straight and cartoon styles.
It was mostly the latter by 1950—Gormley illustrated a lot of John Stanley scripts for New Funnies in the late 1940s—but in earlier years he signed, for instance, "Captain Midnight" covers for The Funnies. Some of the cartoon characters in the pinup, like Oswald the Rabbit, Bugs Bunny, and Porky Pig, are unmistakably Gormley's drawings. Tarzan and Gene Autry are in what looks like a Gormley imitation of Jesse Marsh's style, and Roy Rogers in an imitation of Albert Micale's.
Gormley was, as I say, a Western Printing standby, and it was presumably as such that he was called upon to draw four of the five fold-out panels (each measuring about 6 3/4 x 8 1/4 inches) in yet another Dell subscription premium, this one for Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies Comics, that was first offered in the March 1951 issue. Gormley's panels, reproduced here, offer his versions of Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd, Sylvester, and Henery Hawk. These are not the versions the child reader would find inside the comic book. Not that I'm complaining, exactly; the fifth panel, which I haven't reproduced, is by Ralph Heimdahl and shows standard (and, I'm afraid, rather dull) versions of Bugs and Porky. Gormley's are stranger and more fun. There were other sets of premium panels with the characters from other Dell titles, but, to judge from the subscription ads, none as offbeat as Gormley's.
Conspicuously absent from the Dell group pinup are any characters from two other Western Printing monthly comic books, Walt Disney's Comics & Stories and Red Ryder Comics, both of which also encouraged subscriptions. The absence of those characters is presumably owing to those comic books' being published by Western itself, in its guise as as K.K. Publications, and not by Dell. Although by 1950 both K.K. monthlies bore the Dell label, they were distinct in other respects from their Dell brethren, for historical reasons I explain in my book. By 1950, the Dell monthlies were Looney Tunes, New Funnies, Tom and Jerry, Little Lulu, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and The Lone Ranger. The other characters on the pinup, like Popeye and Tarzan, represented titles published bi-monthly or quarterly.
The pinup bears a copyright in Western Printing's name, never registered or renewed as best I can tell. Such a blanket copyright may have been Western's way of dealing with the awkwardness of publishing a pinup showing characters owned by nine (by my count) different licensors. As it was, that multiplicity of owners generated awkwardness enough.
Take Felix the Cat, down there in the lower left-hand corner, who was in 1950 the star of a bi-monthly Dell comic book. But Felix the Cat's Dell run ended with No. 19, February-March 1951, when Toby began publishing that comic book.
Dell picked up almost immediately with another King Features cat, Krazy Kat. (There's probably an interesting story behind that switch, but I don't know what it is.) Krazy Kat was also published as a bi-monthly, starting with the May-June 1951 issue, but that was in fact the only bi-monthly issue. Krazy Kat then appeared erratically as an ostensible quarterly through 1952, surviving after that for a few years as Four Color one-shots. When the pinup was offered again in February 1952 Dell titles, Felix had been erased, his place filled in some issues, but not all, by Krazy Kat. In Looney Tunes there was only blank space where Felix had been.
In which I continue playing catch-up with books I've wanted to review but haven't, because I was writing another one of my own.
It's not often that an author provides an exceptionally astute evalution of his own books, thereby saving the reviewer a lot of trouble, but Jim Korkis did that a few months ago. Here's what he told me about The Revised Vault of Walt and Who's Afraid of Song of the South and Other Forbidden Disney Stories (both published by Theme Park Press), two collections of short pieces he has written mostly for websites: "[T]hey are not meant to be great tomes bowing to academia....just an attempt to get some material in print for a large audience so that they can be enjoyed and used for reference in the future. I think there is a need and room for scholarly books about Disney subjects. However, I think there can also be room for these 'fun' little books that are well researched."
Or, as Jim puts it in his introduction to his Song of the South book:
"I dance on the thin line between traditional academic scholarship and material accessible to a more general audience. I have tried to incorporate references directly in the text rather than include a massive amount of footnotes that would distract from the flow of the story."
My principal reservation about Jim's work has always been rooted not in accuracy or readability but in whether he has been thorough enough in identifying his sources—that is, in distinguishing his own research from what he has borrowed from others. Attention to such niceties is not so much what separates the "academic" from the "accessible," as what separates fan writing from writing that deserves to be taken more seriously.
Fortunately, Jim has gotten better at explaining how he knows what he knows (which is a great deal) and thus making it easier to enjoy what are in many cases the only substantial examinations of neglected corners of Disney history: Walt's collection of miniatures, the genesis of various Disneyland attractions, Walt's history with the Oscars, and so on. Footnotes would still be welcome, or maybe just a short note on sources at the end of each piece (and The Revised Vault of Walt lacks an index), but it is easier now to have confidence in the substance of each piece—and, I must say, to feel sympathy for a conscientious "Disney Historian" (as Jim identifies himself) whose work has often not been appreciated by the official custodians of that history. You'll find no Disney-copyrighted illustrations in either book.
When the publisher asked me to read Inside the Whimsy Works: My Life with Walt Disney Productions by Jimmy Johnson (University Press of Mississippi) in manuscript, my first concern was whether it would overlap too much with a very good book by Greg Ehrbar and Tim Hollis, Mouse Tracks: The Story of Walt Disney Records (2006). Johnson was president of the Walt Disney Music Company when he retired in 1975, and his unpublished memoir—he died in 1976—was an important source for the Ehrbar-Hollis book. Ehrbar was a co-editor of the new book with Didier Ghez, who has been helping rescue unpublished manuscripts like Homer Brightman's memoir of his life as a Disney story man.
I checked enough of the Johnson references in Mouse Tracks to conclude that the two books were sufficiently different to justify publication of Inside the Whimsy Works, and there's nothing about the published book to make me change my mind. Johnson’s career at Disney encompassed more than records—character merchandising, publications, music publishing—and his manuscript is illuminating about parts of the company that were important to its long-term success but get relatively little attention in books and are rarely the subject of memoirs like this one. What encouraged me to have confidence in Johnson’s memoir—when so many memoirs are difficult to credit, whether in details or as a whole—is that he is highly accurate when what he writes about lends itself to checking. This is especially impressive because he was writing almost forty years ago, when even Bob Thomas’s authorized biography of Walt Disney was yet to be published.
Mercifully, Johnson’s book isn’t padded with extraneous pages on Disney history. It is almost too short; the book comes in at well under two hundred pages even with introductions by Johnson's son and Ehrbar, and an epilogue by Ehrbar.
Johnson’s tone is warm and personal, but with a certain welcome detachment; I almost never felt that he had an axe to grind, except possibly in his harsh comments about O. B. Johnston, the head of character merchandising. But certainly there were self-serving people in the Disney organization even in Walt and Roy’s heyday, and Johnson’s negative opinion of Johnston is hard to dismiss.
Repeatedly, I felt that Johnson was giving his readers a welcome sense of what life was like, day to day, in parts of the Disney organization that have been the subject of much less scrutiny than the “creative” side, particularly when Walt Disney himself was involved in the creating. Walt makes appearances in this book, of course, as does his older brother, Roy, and the glimpses we’re given of both men are revealing and totally consistent with what we know about them from other sources.
I've not yet met Floyd Norman, which is my misfortune, but we've talked on the phone and exchanged email messages, and I've read a good deal of what he has written, or should I say written and drawn—for the Web, for books made up of his deftly satirical cartoons about the animation business, and now for the richly illustrated Animated Life: A Lifetime of Tips, Tricks, Techniques and Stories from an Animation Legend (Focal Press), a sort of combination memoir and guidebook. Floyd's career in animation began in 1956—he was at the Disney studio when Walt was still alive and very much running the place—and later took him to Pixar, in 1997, when it was still a new, admirable, and interesting company. He worked mainly as a story man, almost always a job in which it's easier to maintain a sense of a a film as a whole than in more specialized jobs, and the book offers an insider's accounts of significant movies that got made (Jungle Book, Mary Poppins, Monsters Inc.) and some that didn't, notably Disney's Wild Life.
Arthurian Animation: A Study of Cartoon Camelots on Film and Televison (McFarland) by Michael N. Salda, an associate professor of medieval literature in the English department at the University of Southern Mississippi, is a remarkably comprehensive survey of how the Arthurian legend has taken shape in, as the book cover says, "more than 170 theatrical and televised short cartoons, televised series and specials, and feature-length films from The Sword in the Stone to Shrek the Third." The book actually begins with Harman-Ising's Bosko's Knight-mare (1933) and its highlight is its second chapter, titled appropriately "The Best Arthurian Cartoon Never Made," which is devoted to Hugh Harman's very ambitious but unfinished King Arthur feature of the early 1940s. Thanks to Mark Kausler, Salda had access to Harman's papers when he was writing about that aborted project, and he also located photographs of unpublished drawings of the film's characters. Given how much new information this chapter contains, it's regrettable that Salda (or his publisher) could not settle on whether the villain's name should be spelled "Modred" or "Mordred."
The book is thorough in its coverage of other Arthurian cartoons, if relying a little heavily on plot summaries rather than production histories or critical analysis. The major problem is that it's hard to resist the conclusion that most animated films about King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table have simply not been very good. The legend has resisted cartoon makers' efforts, whether they want to present it seriously or play it for laughs. For that matter, it has not been a fertile source for live-action filmmaker, either. There's an interesting contrast with another British legend, that of Robin Hood, which has been translated into some exceptionally enjoyable cartoons (Chuck Jones's Robin Hood Daffy, for one) and live-action features (like those with Errol Flynn and Richard Todd as Robin). Maybe that's because the Robin Hood legend is inherently cheerful—the good guys win!—whereas the Arthur legend most decidedly is not.
Ultimately, what impressed me most, as I read Arthurian Animation, was that the University of Southern Mississippi has room on its faculty for a professor of medieval literature. Those are civilized folks down there in Hattiesburg.
"Thorough" is a word that also came to mind as I read Sonnets & Sunspots: "Dr. Research" Baxter and the Bell Science Films by Eric Niderost (BearManor Media). The book tells in detail the story of the making of the nine TV shows in the famous Bell Science series, which aired in the 1950s and 1960s, and it is also a biography of Frank C. Baxter, a popular professor of English at the University of Southern California who was the host for the first eight shows. Baxter's essentially accidental career as a TV personality, which began with weekly lectures on Shakespeare in a "public service" slot on a Los Angeles TV station, was the sort of thing readily imaginable only in the '50s, when TV was still a novelty, public stations were just beginning to appear, and many of the performers on TV shows of all kinds had established themselves in other venues first. Niderost traces Baxter's remarkable career as a TV star of sorts, which took him to guest appearances on TV shows as diverse as Tennessee Ernie Ford and Mr. Novak, and even to a role in a science-fiction movie called The Mole People.
Animation was a part of all of the Bell Science specials, and it was produced by brand-name studios: UPA, Shamus Culhane, Warner Bros., and Disney (for The Restless Sea, the last show, in which Baxter did not appear). It's in discussing the animated segments that Niderost's book is probably weakest, in part because by the time he began writing almost everyone who worked on those segments had died. June Foray is the only survivor he cites as a source, and she, like voice artists in general, played a limited role compared with directors and writers and designers. The paucity of solid information about the cartoon segments is for the most part no great loss, especially for the four Bell shows that the Warner studio produced; the animated portions of those shows are of very slight interest, even though the animation for one show each was directed by Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Robert McKimson, and Phil Monroe. Some of the other shows have more to offer—I think of Bobe Cannon's famous animation of a drop of water in The Restless Sea—but there is no compelling reason to seek out any of the Bell films for their animated content.
Sonnets & Sunspots is yet another book that would have benefited from greater specificity as to its sources. There's an extensive bibliography, but when a book is covering as much new ground as this one does, I like to know more precisely where the author got his facts.
Next time: The fourth and final installment of the backlog, on comic books and strips.
Bob and Sody Clampett at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario, in March 1976. The photo is courtesy of the Canadian animator Bill Perkins.
I was very late in learning of her death on June 20, at the age of 83. Sody was, of course, the wife of Bob Clampett—they married in 1955—and the mother of his three children. I met her at the Clampett studio the same day I met Bob, in June 1969. I can't think of any other couples I knew in animation or the comics whose marriage was such a tight fit; they even looked enough alike to be brother and sister. In 1987, three years after Bob died, I did a full interview with Sody about him, his work, and their life together. It would have seemed a little odd to interview many other spouses under such circumstances, but with Sody it seemed like a perfectly natural thing to do—and the interview was in fact very helpful.
Sody's passing hasn't received enough attention, but you can read Mark Evanier's warm remembrance at this link.
Carl Barks in his study at Grants Pass, Oregon, on July 9, 1998. Photo by Michael Barrier.
Bigger and Better Barks
I've recently been cleaning up the site, dropping my outdated photo from the masthead and correcting some mistakes from early in the site's life. Back at the beginning, I was too cautious about the size of my illustrations, fearful, I guess, that anything but postage-stamp-sized illustrations would be too big to load. One casualty of my excessive caution was one of my first posts, a hundredth birthday tribute to Carl Barks. I've now made up for my mistake by resizing some of the illustrations to make them much bigger, as you can see by going to that Essay page. I've also posted one of the photos here.
Some other pages will get a similar cosmetic makeover soon, the Dave Hand interview most notably, and I'll be replacing a number of illustrations on other pages that have never looked as good as they should.
If a scientist conducts research because she wants to discover important facts about the world, that’s an internal motive, since discovering facts is inherently related to the activity of research. If she conducts research because she wants to achieve scholarly renown, that’s an instrumental motive, since the relation between fame and research is not so inherent. Often, people have both internal and instrumental motives for doing what they do.
Such a combination might seem likely to lead to success of both kinds, but not so:
You might suppose that a scientist motivated by a desire to discover facts and by a desire to achieve renown will do better work than a scientist motivated by just one of those desires. Surely two motives are better than one. But ... instrumental motives are not always an asset and can actually be counterproductive to success. ... Helping people focus on the meaning and impact of their work, rather than on, say, the financial returns it will bring, may be the best way to improve not only the quality of their work but also—counterintuitive though it may seem—their financial success.
Perhaps...but what about those situations in which an industry is populated by people many of whom have entered it out of "internal" motives, but that industry is run by people whose motives are overwhelmingly "instrumental"? That is, what happens when an industry is filled with people who want to think of themselves as artists, but that industry is run by people who think only about money?
That question occurred to me as I was reading Cartoon Brew's fascinating coverage of the ongoing scandal in which top executives at big animation studios have been shown to have colluded at suppressing wages and the movement of their employees from one company to another. Such collusion is certainly not new in the animation industry—I remember hearing about it from people who worked at the cartoon studios of the early 1930s—but it seems never to have been particularly effective. For one thing, good animators (or animators considered good in those long-ago days) were relatively scarce, and any serious effort to fence them off permanently from competitors was doomed to failure.
If the studios have been more successful at wage-fixing this time around, the relative anonymity of computer animation's would-be artists surely has something to do with that. Looking at the industry from outside, it seems as though its proprietors have come to consider animators to be about as fungible as inbetweeners or inkers and painters were believed to be in the old days. I don't doubt for a moment that there are animators on today's CGI movies who are highly skilled and whose work, if our eyes could be trained to distinguish it, rises above the norm. But anonymity surely redounds to the corporate executives' benefit, all the way up to the directors' level, where assigning that title to two or three people guarantees that they will be invisible to the public.
If everyone working on a film is essentially an interchangeable, anonymous technician, varying only in the skills required for a particular job, there's no reason not to keep wages as low as possible. Layoffs are likewise not a problem, since you can easily rehire the same skills, if not necessarily the same people. This is the way the TV-cartoon studios always worked, only now it's prestigious feature-animation houses that are doing it. It's strange to think of Pixar and DreamWorks as being fundamentally identical to Hanna-Barbera and Filmation, but that seems to be the case.
So, where does this wage-fixing scandal leave the people who entered animation out of "internal" motives and who, it turns out, through a conspiracy among their "instrumentally" motivated employers have been paid much less than the enormous success of many CGI movies would seem to warrant? At the very least, it may lead some to question how closely their aspirations have ever been aligned with those of their employers.
When I wrote here about How to Train Your Dragon 2 and speculated about just what went wrong, and why that movie was such a disappointment compared with its predecesssor, I'd forgotten about an interview with its director, Dean DeBlois that I excerpted around the time the first movie came out. It's interesting to match what DeBlois said then against the second film:
We definitely benefited from our situation because this has probably been the most hands-off production DreamWorks has ever generated. There was no time left for second-guessing decisions. We were just given a lot of trust and pushed forward to make the best movie we could make within our personal sensibilities. That said, there has been a lot of reaction within the studio about how there have been some unspoken rules that were broken. We don’t have a lot of pop culture references because that’s just not our brand of comedy, we like the comedy to come out of the situations. As such it isn’t a big knee-slapper of a movie. There is some comedy in it but it’s not a back-to-back comedy, it’s much more adventure driven. But that was the tone we were given. When we came on Jeffrey [Katzenberg] said he wanted this to be more Harry Potter than Madagascar. He wanted us to go for the promise of that world.
The second movie is, curiously, even more "adventure driven" than the original, but in cruder fashion. No need to ask whose hands were on that production.
In which I continue playing catch-up with books I've wanted to review but haven't, because I was writing another one of my own.
I own two copies of The Fairest One of All: The Making of Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by J.B. Kaufman, the splendid book published by the Walt Disney Family Foundation Press in 2012 to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the film's release. Kaufman and I have known each other for a long time, and I read the manuscript in 2007 at his request. The copy I received from him bears a warm and collegial inscription, and I can't imagine ever wanting to part with it. But I value my other copy of the book even more, especially because the person who wrote on that copy's flyleaf died the year after the book was published. This is the inscription:
And thanks to you, Diane, for all your good works, especially the Walt Disney Family Museum and the Walt Disney Concert Hall, both worthy monuments to your father.
As far as I'm concerned, Snow White was the greatest of Walt Disney's's achievements, a fabulous movie in its own right and the foundation of many great films to come, features and shorts, from Disney and other studios. We're very fortunate that J.B. Kaufman, who was then on the staff of the Walt Disney Family Foundation, Diane's organization, was available to write about it. Of the writers whose books have appeared not just with the Walt Disney Company's blessings but also under a Disney imprint, only Kaufman and John Canemaker have done the work to qualify fully as experts on their subject matter.
The Fairest One of All is rich with well-documented facts (as I knew from reading the manuscript) and richly illustrated, too (as I expected but did not know, since I saw none of the illustrations beforehand). I can offer only two—not exactly caveats, but comments.
The book is not organized chronologically, except in the general sense that it opens and closes with sections dealing with events before production began in 1934 and after the film was released at the end of 1937. In the body of the book, the chapters are broken down mostly by categories (character design, music) and by sequence. Thanks to Kaufman's skill, this turns out to be a perfectly workable plan, lacking only the drama that a chronological treatment could offer by showing us Walt and his people evading one catastrophic trap after another. It was that drama that I tried to capture—successfully, I think—in my own Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age.
The larger but subtler problem, if I can call it that, is the same one I wrote about a few years ago in the piece I called "The Approved Narrative," a review of what were then Kaufman's and Canemaker's two most recent Disney books. I lamented what I called the lack of an authorial point of view in books published under a Disney imprint—an inevitable lack, since in such books The Walt Disney Company (to use the currently preferred corporate title) is in effect writing about itself. Fortunately, the stronger the subject matter, the less claustrophobic this arrangement. Where Snow White is concerned, the film is so remarkable, and the story of its production so rich and absorbing, that any reservations about a book's Disney credentials melt away in the face of an authorial performance as strong as Kaufman's. I can't imagine that the book would be very different, and certainly not much better, if Kaufman had written it without any official Disney involvement at all.
It's when a film is more problematic that an independent authorial voice could make a difference. Kaufman has been completing a comparable volume on Pinocchio, the second Disney feature and a movie that, for my money, suffers from failings much more serious than any lapses in Snow White. I wouldn't expect Kaufman to agree with that assessment, but I'd like to read what he might say in response to criticisms of Pinocchio like those I make in Hollywood Cartoons. I doubt that he'll address them. I'm reminded of what I wrote on this site five years ago:
We've ... seen a radical transformation in the number and nature of richly illustrated, adult-oriented books about the Disney cartoons. [In 1973], when Abrams published Christopher Finch's Art of Walt Disney, that book—coming as it did from a respected art-book publisher, and coming also many years after the last book that was at all comparable—got an extraordinarily large amount of attention, and also sold extremely well. Now, though, heavily illustrated Disney books are thick on the shelves, and most of them bear Disney's own imprint.
One justly esteemed author of such books [not J.B. Kaufman] lamented to me a few years ago that his books rarely get reviewed, thanks no doubt to their "Disney Editions" label, but from Disney's point view, that can't matter much: there's a sizable core of fans who will buy most such books, and Disney doesn't have to share the money with an outside publisher. More and more, I'm sure, it will be writers who are paid by Disney who will be telling us about Disney history, new Disney films, and so on. And if Disney has its way, most Disney fans will not look anywhere else—or take their money anywhere else—for their Disney dose.
The greatest hazard in such arrangements is not error but dullness. There's evidence for that in the "making of" features that accompany the new Blu-ray releases of Sleeping Beauty and Pinocchio. The histories of both of those lavish failures are vastly more interesting than you could guess from what those of us who appear on the screen say about them (I appear briefly in both features). What's left is not wrong, exactly, but it's safe and controversy-free. It's also not very interesting—unless one is a diehard Disney animation freak who can't hear the same stories too many times. Such people are, of course, the target audience.
Christopher Finch wrote about Snow White in The Art of Walt Disney, of course, and that chapter is one of the best in his book. But how much better Kaufman's book is, how much richer in every way, not just because his whole book is devoted to Snow White, but mostly because Kaufman writes about it as someone who loves the film, and Walt Disney, as few other people do, and who knows that one of the best ways to express such love is through a devotion to historical accuracy, and historical completeness.
J.B. Kaufman has left the staff of the Walt Disney Family Foundation under cloudy circumstances, and I have no idea if he will be writing again for Disney, once the Pinocchio book is done. We can only hope so.
This was a movie I wanted to like, because—as evidenced by the review I posted here more than four years ago—I enjoyed the original How to Train Your Dragon a great deal. Instead, I left the theater disappointed. Everything I most liked about the first movie—especially the sensitively depicted bond between boy and animal, and the aerial displays so breathtaking in 3-D—had been diminished or discarded in favor of the overbearing buzz and clatter that I associate with DreamWorks Animation features in general (not that I've seen very many in the last few years).
Seeing Dragon 2 in IMAX 3-D turned out to be a mistake, this being a movie that grabs you by the throat and shoves itself in your face for much of its length, a particularly disagreeable experience when the screen is IMAX-huge. The noisy concluding battle that deformed the first feature now seemed to consume almost the entire movie; I suppose this is what people mean when they say the story is "darker." Everything was tiresomely familiar, excepting only the reappearance of Hiccup's mother—really the only justification for this sequel—and that revelation was, for me, all but smothered by the general excess. (She looked naggingly familiar, until I finally realized that her design was probably borrowed from the dud 2008 feature The Tale of Despereaux.) I even kept being aware of the music, and actively disliking it because it underlined so crudely what was too obvious to begin with.
It's tempting to speculate about what went wrong. Dean DeBlois, co-director of the original How To Train Your Dragon, was the solo director and writer of this one, but I don't know that the absence of Chris Sanders as co-director was a critical lack. Sanders was the co-director of another DreamWorks feature, The Croods, that was widely dismissed as heavy-handed comedy when it came out last year. I haven't seen it yet, although I keep telling myself I should stream it. Maybe I should leave well enough alone.
In fairness, I should point out that the two little girls, ages 9 and 10, who accompanied me to Dragon 2 disagreed only on whether it was the best movie they'd ever seen or just one of the best. Further proof, I'm sure, that I should stay home and watch Looney Tunes on Blu-ray.
...was quite likely this one, which appeared (in much smaller size, so that reading his credit all but requires a magnifying glass) in the Calgary Eye-Opener for June 1928. That this was Barks's first signed drawing in the Eye-Opener is the considered judgment of Geoffrey Blum, who has edited two collections of Barks's Eye-Opener drawings, and I'll happily accept that conclusion, since the June 1928 number is one of the twenty-odd issues of the Eye-Opener in my own collection. There are other private collections much larger than mine, but collections in public and university libraries are few and thinly stocked, so anyone who wants to challenge Geoff's conclusion has his work cut out for him.
It's conceivable, I suppose, that the Eye-Opener published unsigned Barks drawings in earlier issues, but that seems unlikely; and just as unlikely is that Barks was published in other magazines first. He was still working as a laborer in 1928, and was years away from joining the Eye-Opener's staff.
Tomorrow is the first Father's Day since Diane Disney Miller died last fall, and it seems an appropriate time to post a photo of her with the father to whom she was so devoted. This photo was taken at the Drake Hotel in Chicago on August 21, 1943, as Walt and Diane (who was 10) were returning from a trip to the East Coast and Detroit. I'd planned that this photo would be part of a post on that trip, perhaps as one of my "Day in the Life" photo essays, and you may see it again sometime soon. Diane shared her memories of the trip with me, and they will of course be an important part of my post.
I realized later that I should have made allowance for the possibility that personal passion and day-to-day work can in fact coincide, and that it isn't inevitable that real satisfaction from work will come only away from one's day job. After all, that's why the "golden age" of Hollywood animation was golden, back in the 1930s and '40s and '50s. Many of the people who worked then in the best Hollywood studios discovered that their own artistic ambitions were aligned, substantially if not always perfectly, with the ambitions of the people who were in charge of making the cartoons. I remember one veteran animator's telling me that after he moved over to Disney's from the Mintz studio in the '30s, he couldn't wait to get to work in the morning. I was impressed; I don't remember ever feeling that way about any job I've held. But other people said much the same thing: the work was challenging, it could be fun, it was rewarding in many ways. (If anyone who worked on Planes felt that way, please raise your hand.)
Even in a "golden age," of course, there will be people who think only in adversarial terms and regard the work, and the people who've hired them, with the intense cynicism I remember seeing so often in my colleagues when I was a newspaper and magazine journalist. The purity of such people's disdain for the work, and for their employers, can be a little unsettling. I wrote on this site about interviewing one such person, Phil Klein, a few years ago, and you can read about someone who seems to have been cut from the same cloth, Larry Clemmons, in the second installment of Steve Hulett's marvelous memoir of his early days as a story man at Disney, Mouse in Transition, which is being serialized at Cartoon Brew. Clemmons worked at Disney in the 1930s, mostly as an inbetweener and assistant animator, and returned in the 1950s as a writer for TV and then feature cartoons, after years of writing for the Bing Crosby radio show. (That's him at the right, in a caricature by Ward Kimball that I've appropriated from Cartoon Brew.) In a quotation that presumably comes from memory but sounds completely authentic, Hulett has Clemmons saying this:
All this crap about the Golden Age of animation? Back in the thirties? It wasn’t MY Golden Age. It was the middle of the damn depression. There weren’t any damn jobs. And there I was, doing breakdowns on a damn Donald Duck short. And then the production manager would walk in and say, ‘We gotta get this picture out! Who wants to come in Saturday and work?’ If you wanted to keep your job you raised your hand and shouted how much you wanted to spend your Saturday there. For no pay. Like I say, it wasn’t MY Golden Age.
I remember other people speaking about their early days at Disney in very much the same terms—the tedium of the work, the despair it induced, the miserable bosses—but for someone like, say, Eric Larson, those grueling early days were just the prelude to a long and highly productive career. Other people, not catching any glimpse of such a future, simply left, if they weren't fired first. Someone like Clemmons, who evidently remained a cynical inbetweener in spirit for decades, was a rarity. I never got around to interviewing him, unfortunately, although I may have hung back because I had a pretty good idea of what I'd hear. Working under George Drake in the 1930s and Woolie Reitherman in the 1960s and '70s would tend to warp one's view of the world.
Of course, the Disney studio in the 1970s was the heyday not just of Reitherman but also of Don Bluth, and it was warped in many ways. Steve Hulett began working there in 1976 (and had a family connection before that through his father, Ralph, for many years a background painter at the studio), and his memoir is powerfully evocative of an institution in decline. I was visiting the studio every year or two then, starting in 1969, and it felt to me like the place Steve Hulett describes, the Hollywood equivalent of a backwater college where exciting new ideas were supposedly encouraged but were in fact regarded as unwelcome intruders that must be smothered quietly. "It ... dawned on me that the simple, direct route wasn’t the way things were done at Disney," Hulett writes. "It meant ruffling too many feathers that were best left smooth and undisturbed."
Mouse in Transition is appearing on Cartoon Brew in weekly installments; the fourth is to be published today. I'm very much looking forward to it, and to what's to come.
The site went up about eleven years ago. In that time I've made a few minimal changes in its templates, but I haven't paid much attention to their elements. It dawned on me the other day that my photo at the top of the page, which was taken in 1997, was badly out of date. I don't look radically different, but my hair is much grayer, and to leave up so old a photo seems a little silly. So I've taken it down from the home page, and I'll remove it from other pages as soon as possible. If for some reason you want to see a photo closer to what I look like now, click on "bio" above. And if for some reason you want to see what I looked like many years ago, as when I visited J. R. Bray and Bob McKimson, there are such photos scattered throughout the site, too.
They grow like weeds, don't they? The latest slur, which has been called to my attention by two different people, is that Walt supposedly denied his animators screen credit on the initial release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the credits that all of us have seen having been added only after the 1941 strike and at the cartoonists' union's insistence. As "proof," there are such sources as the skimpy credits that accompanied the rave review for Snow White in the New York Times and statements in notoriously unreliable books like Leonard Mosley's Disney's World.
So, just for the record, here are the credits that appeared in weekly Variety for December 29, 1937 and Film Daily for December 27, 1937. Both include full lists of animators (and others) who got screen credit. The Variety reviewer marveled at the large number of names and wrote of watching them appear on the screen. Film Daily's reviewer praised the four directing animators by name, in addition to listing them in the screen credits.
First the Variety credits:
And then Film Daily's:
I haven't compared these lists with each other, or with the credits in the film as released on video, most recently in an excellent Blu-ray transfer, so it's possible there are small discrepancies of the sort that get into any newspaper. The larger point is, of course, that Snow White as originally released included an abundance of screen credits, for animators and others; and they don't whiz by, to cite another complaint I remember reading many years ago.
Bogus stories like this one always defy belief on any number of points. In this case, if Walt were going to award screen credits to other members of his staff, why on earth would he exclude his animators, the people who were most critical to achieving the result he wanted on the screen and who would be his mainstays for the additional features he wanted to make? How could such an injustice have escaped widespread notice for so many decades?
As to why such stories continue to flourish, your guess is as good as mine. To the extent they originate in the animation industry itself, I suppose jealousy and self-pity (why isn't my genius being recognized?) are the likeliest culprits.
I see almost no new animated movies except for those that there's no escaping, like Frozen. I do revisit old features that I haven't seen for a while, and occasionally an older film I hadn't known about will come to my attention, thanks usually to one of my correspondents. Such was the case with Felidae, a German animated feature from 1994, directed by Michael Schaack. I'd never even heard of it until I got a message a couple of years ago asking if I'd seen it. The complete film could be found on YouTube in an English version, I was told, but I held off because I hate watching movies on a computer screen. When YouTube became available streamed through Roku, Felidae was one of the first things I wanted to see.
The movie is based on a novel by a Turkish-born German writer, Akif Pirincci, whose great success with the book and subsequently the film was the subject of a New York Times story in December 1994. The Times summarized book and film this way:
A detective story in which a mass murderer, the sleuth who unmasks him, and most of the other principal characters are cats, "Felidae" is also full of darker overtones. The murderer is a sort of feline Josef Mengele who tries to create a master race of cats fierce enough to take the world back from their human oppressors, and who kills off those who fail to follow the strict breeding rules he sets for them.
An English translation of Felidae had been reviewed in the Times early in 1993, its plot dismissed then as "too much talk and too much philosophy." As best I can tell, though, the movie never had a U.S. release.
And no wonder. However peculiar the book, the movie is surely even stranger. Not just because of its insistently bloody and kinky events, but also because it is drawn and animated in a style I can best describe as pseudo-Don Bluth. Bluth animation, as I've described it, "is not merely literal but also painfully self-conscious. It is the kind of animation that results when animators try to achieve the vaunted Disney 'sincerity'—that is, animation in which the characters really seem to believe in what they're doing—by having the characters behave as if they know that they're appearing in a film." There is also in Felidae a hopelessly clumsy and complicated plot, another characteristic of Bluth's features, and a similarly characteristic longing for a Disney-style cuteness that is in this case radically at odds with the subject matter.
I can easily imagine a harried suburban mother dumping her kiddies at a multiplex showing Felidae, only to come back a couple of hours later and finding them traumatized. I'm sure American distributors had exactly the same thought. The animated feature, as American filmmakers, distributors, and exhibitors have defined it, is far too narrow to accommodate a film like Felidae.
Fortunately, most of my visitors are older and tougher than the American children who will never see Felidae. If I can't exactly recommend Felidae to you, I can at least say that it will probably do no more damage to your psyche than most recent American feature cartoons.
I've wanted to write here about a number of very good books, published in the past year or so, that I had to neglect when I was deepest in work on Funnybooks. Now I finally have the time. I'll start with a book that's particularly easy to review because I wrote the preface for it. That book is Disney's Grand Tour: Walt and Roy's European Vacation, Summer 1935 by Didier Ghez (Theme Park Press). I can't do any better than quote myself:
A few years ago, when I was writing my book The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney and my wife was reading the manuscript, she surprised me one evening by laughing in astonishment. It was Walt who made her laugh—because, she said, he was always doing things, he was never still, his curiosity kept leading him in new directions. Just reading about him, it was hard to keep up. I understood what she was saying. For me, that is why learning about Walt and writing about him has always been a great pleasure. He was an exceptionally active and interesting man at every point in his life.
In recent years, thanks to Disney scholars like Tim Susanin, J.B. Kaufman, Paul Anderson, Todd James Pierce, and others too numerous to mention, more and more phases of this extraordinary man’s life have been illuminated in books and websites. In my own case, I have concentrated on his work as a filmmaker, particularly the animated films. The documentation of that part of his life is abundant, and I’ve never tired of exploring it.
One crucial passage in his life has been neglected—understandably, because the task of filling that gap was so intimidating. Walt Disney, his brother Roy, and their wives spent two months in Europe in the summer of 1935, visiting great cities and historic sites. We have known about the general contours of that trip, or thought we did, thanks mainly to scrappy reports in old American newspapers. An award from the League of Nations in Paris…a meeting with Mussolini in Rome…adoring crowds everywhere…Walt scooping up illustrated books that might be of use in making his animated cartoons. But the details have eluded us, hidden behind barriers of time and especially language.
Some of what we thought we knew was true—the crowds were large and enthusiastic, and Walt did buy a lot of books. But the award did not come from the League of Nations, and the Disneys did not meet Mussolini (or the Pope, as some people have thought). A great deal of fresh information about that trip has now come to light, thanks to Didier Ghez and the remarkably large number of Disney scholars—including some within the Walt Disney Company itself, at the Walt Disney Archives—whose help he has enlisted in tracking down elusive facts, from a multiplicity of sources and in several different languages.
Thanks to Didier, we now know much more about the Disneys’ trip on a day-to-day basis—where they went, where they stayed, what they did—from the time they left Los Angeles until the time they returned. We also know much more about the trip’s business dimensions. There is a rich mine of information in this book for future chroniclers of the Disney Company’s overseas activities and Roy Disney’s role in them. And then there are the book’s small and delightful surprises. Did we know that Gunther Lessing, the Disneys’ intimidating lawyer, had a sly sense of humor? Now we do, thanks to his tongue-in-cheek correspondence with Roy Disney. There is even a list of the highly eclectic selection of more than three hundred books that Walt brought back from Europe.
Disney’s Grand Tour is a remarkable effort, one for which everyone who cares about Walt Disney and his creations should be grateful.
Actually, I'd feel a little more grateful if I weren't obliged now to go back into my pages here of corrections for Hollywood Cartoons and The Animated Man and make note of where Didier's excellent work has exposed shortcomings in my own. But that's the way the Disney-research game must be played, alas! I'll let you know when the corrections are up.
Re-reading my preface, I detect hesitation born of concern that some readers may feel overwhelmed by the abundance of detail, the very aspect of Disney's Grand Tour that is most attractive to me. Striking the right balance in such matters is very hard to do, as I know from work on my own books. In this case, especially considering how much new information Didier has uncovered, I'm more than happy to give him the benefit of the doubt. I wouldn't want to lose anything that's in the book.
Didier, as everyone who cares about Disney history knows, is the proprietor of a website of that title and the compiler of, so far, fourteen volumes of Walt's People, devoted to interviews and related material about (mostly) people who knew Walt Disney and worked for him. A qualifier is needed because in later volumes some of the interviews have been with people who entered the Disney picture much too late to have known Walt. Fortunately, most of those latter-day interviews have been substantial enough to warrant their inclusion in the series.
The interviews with Walt's contemporaries vary in quality, of course, but the best ones are very good, and the series as a whole is immensely valuable, an imposing monument to Didier's dedication and energy. The major shortcoming is the lack of an index covering the entire series, a shortcoming that Didier himself is well aware of and that looms larger and larger as the series grows. Fortunately, Theme Park Press is now the publisher—it has reissued the first volume, with corrections, in addition to publishing the thirteenth and, soon, fourteenth volumes. Now that Didier has such solid support, there's reason to hope that the lack of an index may be remedied soon. An online index, updated with each new volume and available through subscription, would make a great deal of sense
It's remarkable, really, how many good animation/comics-related books have been published in recent years, at a time when the book industry is in turmoil and print itself is under siege. I'll post more reviews soon, although I'll restrict myself, with rare exceptions, to books that have been sent to me for review. That will excuse me from reviewing the big book on the McKimson brothers, for instance, as well as The Noble Approach, Homer Brightman's autobiography, and any number of "Art of" books.
I was fascinated by the online quarrel that boiled throughout Memorial Day weekend at Cartoon Brew, about the new book devoted to "concept art" for the Disney CGI feature Planes and its sequel, Planes: Fire & Rescue. Amid Amidi, Cartoon Brew's proprietor, suggested in a very brief item that some sort of limit had been reached: "It’s no longer possible for anyone to collect every ‘art of’ book published, and frankly, with titles like this, why would any discerning artist want to?" Any number of Brew readers responded indignantly, with this comment by "Sam" typical: "I wish the biggest animation site on the internet didn't frequently
attack hard-working talented artists within its own industry like this.
To say no 'discerning artist' would care about their work is shameful.
You don't even supply any constructive feedback, your comments are just
outright rude and unnecessarily antagonistic."
As I was reading such responses, my thoughts turned to one of my own long-ago jobs, as a writer/editor for the monthly magazine published by a very large trade association based in Washington, D.C. I was, if I may borrow "Sam's" phrasing, a hard-working, talented writer. A lot of my work was drudgery, but for one extended period the job was actually quite enjoyable, because it entailed traveling around the country to interview and write profiles of small-business people, some of them very interesting and almost all of them highly likable. On the rare occasion when I revisit some such profile I wrote twenty or thirty years ago and haven't read since, I'm pleased by my professionalism: I got the facts right, and I assembled them in the right way.
There was professionalism in my magazine work, but nothing more. What I don't find in my pieces—and what my superiors certainly would have taken out if they'd found it there—is any evidence of a personal commitment to the subject matter. I occasionally wrote about people I'd met whose work interested me deeply, like Charles Schulz, Bill Melendez, and John Kricfalusi, but my articles about them don't betray the depth of my interest. I was writing my book Hollywood Cartoons at that time, and that's where my passion went.
Reading the comments on Cartoon Brew, I can't help but wonder if the people who were so distressed by Amid's dismissal of The Art of Planes have any similar outside work that they really care about. There is, after all, no "concept" associated with Planes and its sequel other than making money for the Walt Disney Company, specifically by generating lots of sales of toys and children's books based on the film's characters. If in fact any intensely personal work did slip into The Art of Planes, I would have to assume that the artists involved didn't understand what kind of movie the two Planes were supposed to be.
In saying that, I don't mean to criticize anyone who approached work on Planes, or The Art of Planes, in the spirit in which I approached my work for that long-ago magazine. I had a job to do, I did it well, and I was paid for it, not handsomely but adequately. In the meantime, I found life's richest satisfactions outside of that job. The feeling I get, though, is that there are a lot of people in Hollywood animation today who want their day-to-day work to be judged, and especially praised, as if it were the fruit of a personal passion, as if it were in some sense art, and not as what it really is, a mundane way to put food on the table.
That disconnection is clearly implied in the outraged tone of a lot of the comments on Cartoon Brew. Amid's correspondents undoubtedly speak for dozens of irate colleagues who don't want to lower themselves to challenge what they regard as a terrible insult. Plenty of writers are happy to encourage such self-deception (especially if they've been paid to provide the text for a Disney picture book), but Amid, bless him, isn't one of them. I suspect that my own plainly stated skepticism about recent Hollywood product accounts for the hostility I encounter occasionally, hostility that usually comes cloaked in righteous anger about some injustice I've supposedly inflicted, in a book or on this website—bruising the feelings of some sly old sociopath, perhaps, or destroying a decades-long friendship (names never specified), or using exactly the wrong adjective on one page of a 500-page book. Any excuse will do.
In the top row, from the left: Bill Cottrell, XX, XX, XX, Joe Grant. In the middle row, XX, Webb Smith, Ted Sears, Pinto Colvig (just above Clarence "Ducky" Nash), Bob Kuwahara. In the bottom row, Albert Hurter, Harry Reeves, XX, Larry Morey.
Mystery Men of 1934
The ever-alert Gunnar Andreassen spotted this sheet of caricatures of Disney story men from 1934, up for sale at the Heritage Auctions site along with a Clarence Sinclair Bull photo of some of the same people. In the caption, I've attached names to as many of the caricatures as Gunnar could identify—with no help from me, I'm embarrassed to say, although some of these people look maddeningly familiar. (Isn't Floyd Gottfredson one of the "hall room boys"?) Let me know if you recognize any of them. As names can be attached to drawings, I'll add them to the caption.
And then there's the question of who drew the caricatures. I don't have an answer for that, either.
I returned the edited files for Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books to University of California Press earlier this week, with extensive revisions and additions. I'm scheduled to see page proofs in a couple of months. Now I'm trying to catch up on a great many neglected tasks, including updating this website more frequently. My audience has undoubtedly shrunk over the last few years of relative inactivity, but I enjoy posting here—as the saying goes, I often don't know what I think until I've written it down—and if I'm essentially talking to myself for a while, that'll be OK. There are certainly lots of other blogs and websites whose proprietors are doing the same, whether they realize it or not.
Little Lulu and John Stanley are of course important figures in Funnybooks, and when I ran across this colorful ad in Film Daily for December 22, 1943, I couldn't resist sharing it. No doubt someone out there can identify the cartoonist. Thanks to Marjorie Henderson Buell's frequently very funny panel cartoons for the Saturday Evening Post, Lulu was a surprisingly big deal back in the forties, as evidenced by the publicity for the Famous Studios cartoons. The cartoons were, alas, uniformly poor, and burdened as well with a black maid character, Mandy, who was grotesquely stereotypical even by the low prevailing standards. It's no wonder that the series died after four years and that the cartoons have for so long been all but invisible on TV and video.
It was of course in comic books that Lulu had her longest and most profitable run—profitable especially for her creator, "Marge"—thanks to John Stanley's brilliant handling of Lulu and Tubby, characters he inherited, and the supporting characters he created. I suspect that was not the outcome that anyone expected back in August 1943, when Marge, who lived in Philadelphia, visited Famous Studios in Manhattan and saw a storyboard for one of the first Lulu cartoons, an event memorialized in Showmen's Trade Review for August 21, 1943.
When I was a kid, buying Little Lulu at my local Woolworth's, I remember being aware of how distinct that comic book was from the other Dell monthlies, like Walt Disney's Comics & Stories and The Lone Ranger. The characters in those comic books had their principal commercial life in other media, movies and TV and radio, but by the early 1950s, with the animated cartoons gone, Little Lulu was essentially a comic-book character. She was a pitchman (pitchgirl?) for Kleenex, and Western Printing & Lithographing, under its Whitman name, published a lot of Lulu coloring books and Little Golden Books and the like, in addition to the comic books. There were, besides, Lulu items of other kinds from other manufacturers, but for all practical purposes the stories that gave life to licensed characters as different as Roy Rogers and Woody Woodpecker existed in Lulu's case only in the comic books.
It's possible to trace Marjorie Henderson Buell's career as a licensor through the "Marge" collection at Harvard University's Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the most complete available collection of papers related to any licensor's dealings with Western Printing. In Marge's case those papers cover a quarter-century span ending with Western's purchase of all the rights to Lulu in 1972. The collection is at the Schlesinger Library thanks to Marge's son, Lawrence Buell, an emeritus professor of American literature at Harvard, and his brother, Fred, a professor at Queens College in New York.
If you're a reader of The New Yorker, you may have seen Adam Gopnik's review—not especially favorable, I'm afraid—of Lawrence Buell's most recent book, The Dream of the Great American Novel (Harvard), in the April 21 issue. That issue also includes a piece by Emily Nussbaum on the animated television series Adventure Time, which I've only recently discovered and which I recommend. Not a series that Marge would have found congenial, I suspect, but I can imagine John Stanley writing for it.
This website has been a casualty the last couple of years of my intense involvement with my new book, Funnybooks, and I've found it particularly difficult to work up reviews of some good and important books. One book I've wanted to write about is Thad Komorowski's Sick Little Monkeys, his account of the making of the Ren & Stimpy television cartoons, first by John Kricfalusi at his Spumco studio and then, after Nickelodeon ran out of patience, by the studio called Games Animation. I've finally written a review, and you can read it at this link.
My next book, Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books, is now available for pre-order through amazon.com, at this link. The book is on track for publication before the end of the year.
Originally Funnybooks was to be published at first in hardcover, with a paperback edition following. Now it will be published simultaneously in a very limited hardcover edition and a larger paperback edition, as seems to be the case with an increasing number of books these days, especially if their subject matter is similar to mine. I'm sure there will be an e-book, too, but I don't know when. The price of the paperback, as offered on amazon.com, is disappointing to me, but I expect the actual price to be lower by the time Funnybooks is published.
Such uncertainties as to format and price are byproducts of the turmoil the book industry is going through as it struggles to achieve equilibrium between print, on the one hand, and e-readers, on the other, and between online and brick-and-mortar retailing. Authors and readers can get caught in the squeeze, especially when a publisher is understandably apprehensive about just how large a market there may be for a book devoted to comic books whose popularity crested almost sixty years ago. The "nostalgia market" for Funnybooks can't be that large. In any case, my book makes no appeals to nostalgia. What matters to me is how rewarding it is to read Carl Barks or Walt Kelly now, not in 1949. I hope that enough readers will feel the same way to give Funnybooks healthy sales and a long in-print life.
And speaking of Walt Kelly, that is of course one of his drawings, as licensed by his estate, that will appear on the cover of the book. It's from the front cover of Pogo Possum No. 10, July-September 1952.
On the evening of March 31 in Manhattan, Michael Sporn's colleagues and friends—Phyllis and I were two of the latter—celebrated his life as an animation filmmaker, which was wonderfully creative and all too short. It was a lovely evening, full of reminders of just how much Michael accomplished and of what a remarkable man he was. There were tributes from fellow professionals—John Canemaker, Ray Kosarin, Candy Kugel, and Mark Mayerson, Mark's tribute read in his absence by Michael's widow, Heidi Stallings—and warm family reminiscences by Heidi and Michael's brother, Jerry Rosco. There were extended excerpts from some of the Sporn films, and appearances by Michael himself, in clips from the supplemental materials on his DVDs. It was mostly very upbeat and enjoyable, until, at the end, "Sunday" from Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George played over a photo montage.Then it was time for a lump in the throat.
Sondheim was, as Heidi remarked, a particular favorite of Michael's—understandably, since Sondheim is as completely a New York artist in his field as Michael was in his. I liked the familial New York feeling of the evening, with its audience made up largely of people who, like Michael, have learned how to squeeze some artistic satisfaction out of the turnip that is today's animation industry. It's hard for me to imagine a comparable gathering in Los Angeles, where so many people in animation seem to know in their bones that they're hacks, unless they've talked themselves into believing they're much greater talents than they really are. It's even harder for me to imagine a Michael Sporn thriving there, and I'm glad he never made the move.
As everyone who visits this website knows by now, Michael was a master at transforming sponsored films on low budgets into strongly felt personal statements. Seeing the clips at his memorial renewed my awareness of how that ability manifested itself not just visually but also, perhaps even more so, in the soundtracks of his films, the voices and the music. There's The Marzipan Pig, for instance, a tender fable based on a book by Russell Hoban, a book read in its entirety on the soundtrack by Tim Curry, with music by Caleb Sampson. Both narrator and composer are completely in sympathy with the story, and with Michael's aims. The animation by the late Tissa David is excellent on its own terms, but unavoidably more constricted than what we hear. Other Sporn films have equally distinctive narrators—James Earl Jones, F. Murray Abraham, Jake Gyllenhaall, Boris Karloff—chosen by Michael not because their names would look good on a poster but because their sensibilities harmonized with what he wanted in a particular film.
But see, and hear, for yourself. A dozen Sporn cartoons are available online, through a subscription site called Fandor, and others are available on DVD from First Run Features.
Back on April 21, 2008, I posted an item here titled "Walt's Skeptical Supervisor," about James Edward MacLachlan, whom Tim Susanin had just identified as the man Walt Disney was talking about when he told Pete Martin that his immediate supervisor at Kansas City Film Ad found the young Walt "a little too inquisitive and maybe a little too curious. ... He was kind of sore at me, because I think he felt the boss [A. V. Cauger] paid me too much." MacLachlan, misidentified by Fred Harman as "McLaughlin," can be seen in the accompanying photo of the Film Ad art staff from the Web site of the Fred Harman Museum in Pagosa Springs, Colorado.
Writing in The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney, I suggested a source of that skepticism: "Lower-level supervisors at resolutely mundane places like the Film Ad Company, protective of their own positions, usually regard bright ideas of any kind with suspicion, particularly if they call into question established methods." But now there's reason to believe that McLachlan's skepticism about Walt had another source. I've heard from Denise MacLachlan, who writes as follows:
My great grandfather was James Edward MacLachlan, who died December 24, 1924, so soon after that photo was taken.... His oldest daughter, my great aunt Marjorie, supported the family after her father died.
The understanding in my family is that Marjorie and Walt were taken with each other, and that Marjorie's father warned her away from Walt. James thought Walt wasn't steady enough for Marjorie. My family jokes about James's apparent lack of business sense, to dissuade his daughter from a man who'd turn out to be such an icon—but actually, his warning does make sense. James was supporting a wife and five children as a commercial artist. His oldest daughter was only 18 at the time of the photo, working in the same office with her father and with Walt, who was slightly older than Marjorie. James was going home each evening to a large family, with children ranging in age from 9 to 18. According to what I've read in your blog, Walt was spending his free time playing with the medium, making funny shorts and figuring out what he could do with film. He didn't stay long with the ad agency and he didn't stay long at his employment before the ad agency. At the time James knew him, Walt might not have been the kind of young man a father would want his daughter dependent on. James may have had sufficient reason to be "kind of sore" with someone who was flirting with his daughter.
There's no sense in my family of James's having tenuous employment with the ad agency. It's taken for granted that he was respected and held a solid position. We also know that he liked to draw. He taught all of his children to draw.
That sounds entirely plausible to me. As many a male cartoon fancier can testify, an interest in animation will not necessarily ingratiate a suitor with a young lady's parents.
And speaking of Tim Susanin, I hear that his excellent book Walt Before Mickey: Disney's Early Years, 1919-1928 (University Press of Mississippi), published in hardcover in 2011, may soon appear in paperback. In either format, it's a mandatory purchase for anyone who finds Walt's personal history as endlessly interesting as I do.
The presiding genius of the wonderful Little Lulu comic book of the 1940s and 1950s was born a hundred years ago today in New York City, the son of Irish immigrants. He wrote all of the Lulu stories from the first issue, in 1945, until the late 1950s. Stanley drew almost none of the Lulu stories after the first few Four Color issues, but he always drew the front covers, one of which, for the September 1951 issue, is above. This cover intrigues me; in today's hyper-protective environment, would any publication for kids dare to suggest that bug spray might be a suitable weapon in warfare among children?
Michael Sporn. From Michael's widow, Heidi Stallings, comes word that a memorial celebration of his life will be held on Monday evening, March 31, at the Academy Screening Room at the Lighthouse, 111 E. 59th Street, between Park and Lexington Avenues in New York City. The celebration will begin at 7 p.m., with a reception to follow at a venue not yet determined. Phyllis and I will be there.
Robin Allan. The British author of the landmark study Walt Disney and Europe died on January 6 at the age of 79, an event too little remarked in the animation world with the notable exception of Maureen Furniss' warm Animation Journal post. Robin and I met only once, at the Disney Studio in 1992, but we were in touch frequently over the years, by mail and occasionally by phone, and I always valued him as a friend and one of the very best Disney scholars.
Robin's story, as told by his wife, Janet, in a brief biography shared with friends, was more remarkable than I realized, beginning with a childhood in the African country of Malawi, when it was the British colony Nyasaland, and continuing with employment in places as diverse as Kuwait, Malta, and Iran, before he settled in as a lecturer at the Manchester College of Adult Education. His perseverance in pursuing what Janet calls "his Disney dream" resulted in the completion of his Ph.D. in 1993, on "European influences on the animated feature films of Walt Disney," and ultimately the publication of his book, in 1999. In the meantime, he had taken early retirement and set up what Janet calls "a theatre-going coach service 'Intertheatre' which took enthusiasts all over the country on theatrical and literary journeys." He was recurrently ill the last nine years of his life, but remained active almost until the end.
I have been occupied the last few months with work on Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books, but with that book now finished and in production, I finally have time to think about this website again, and specifically about some of the few movies I've had time to see.
Frozen. When Phyllis and I saw this latest Disney animated feature, we sat in front of three little girls who had seen it before, probably more than once, and who sang along with it enthusiastically. I was charmed, but I knew then that anything I might have to say about Frozen would be utterly superfluous. The movie had connected with its target audience, and I was definitely not part of it. (I know people my age who loved Frozen, but they saw it with their granddaughters.) I'll make a few comments, anyway.
My lingering impression is that Frozen is the apotheosis of the "Disney Princess" movie. The girls in the film, Anna and Elsa, are not fairy-tale princesses but are instead, much more than their predecessors in other Disney features, idealized versions of the girls in the audience. The gap between the princesses on the screen and the "princesses" in the audience has been bridged. Not without a little awkwardness, to be sure. When Anna and Kristoff finally kiss, it's anticlimactic, the real climax having occurred when the sisters reconcile; but, of course, mending a breach with a sister would typically be more important to a little girl than a kiss from a boy. The Disney people seem to have realized that by making the movie appeal so powerfully to little girls, they could shrug off any concerns that a "princess" label might discourage boys from seeing it.
Throughout, Frozen is an expertly machined piece of entertainment. When Elsa sings "Let It Go," it's a dazzling commercial for the inevitable Broadway version., and no doubt many people will be tempted to see that show just to learn how Disney's theatrical wizards have translated all the snow and ice into stage machinery. But ultimately, the air of calculation, the sense that the commercial possibilities were weighed with a jeweler's precision at every moment during production, to the exclusion of possibilities of other kinds, makes Frozen tiresome as even other recent Disney animated features are not. For one thing, I saw not a hint of any progress toward making CGI human characters look more like real beings and less like plasticine dolls.
Movies manipulate; that's what they do. But usually not so relentlessly and single-mindedly. Unlike those little girls sitting behind me, I don't think I'll see Frozen again.
Saving Mr. Banks. This Disney movie's version of events surrounding the production of Mary Poppins is so obviously and clumsily fictional that I can't believe it will have any lasting impact. I don't think anyone in the future will call Tom Hanks to mind when the name "Walt Disney" is spoken. But I enjoyed seeing the exteriors shot at the Disney studio, where I spent a lot of time over the years, and trying to figure out how the action had been staged to avoid showing buildings that were not there fifty years ago. And then there were cute details like Hanks's Smoke Tree Ranch tie pin.
I also found myself speculating what it was about this story might have appealed to Disney executives, Robert Iger, in particular. The movie, is of course, about how Walt cajoles P.L. Travers into letting him make a movie of Mary Poppins by identifying and exploiting her weakness, her love for her drunken father. Her book passes into Walt's hands and becomes an enduringly popular film. On reflection, how could such a story not appeal to a man whose tenure as Disney's CEO has been distinguished most by his negotiations to buy other people's ideas—Pixar, Star Wars, Marvel Comics—and transform them into something more "Disney"? Who knows, maybe in 2064 there'll be a movie about how Bob Iger found the weak spot in George Lucas's psyche.
Gravity. Easily the best animated film of the year. Well, a combination film, actually, as much of one as The Three Caballeros, but wonderful, regardless (and with much better animation and much better acting than any other combination film I can think of). I've read some persuasive complaints about Gravity's lack of scientific accuracy, but this is a case, unlike Saving Mr. Banks, where any falseness is self-justifying.
Third Man on the Mountain. Not a new movie, of course, but rather a 1959 Disney live-action feature. There's a page on this site about the filming of that very good movie, and thanks again to Werner Schrämli, I've added another photo and some more information to it. You can go directly to the new material by clicking on this link.
There have been many tributes to Michael on the Web since he died on January 19, but one of the very best is Mark Mayerson's. He knew Michael well as both a friend and a cartoon maker, and that knowledge shaped his moving tribute. I could not agree more with what he has written: "Michael’s lack of profile with the general public will make his loss seem less than it is. Make no mistake: we’ve lost a great film maker who managed to create art with the sparsest of resources. Animation needs creators like Michael if it’s ever going to explore the full range of human experience."
Ray Kosarin, who also worked for Michael and knew him well, has written an equally impressive tribute for ASIFA East's website. If, after reading these tributes, you were to watch some of the films that Mark and Ray recommend, you would surely come away with some sense of just how special Michael was, and how much we have lost in his passing.
Michael's widow, Heidi Stallings, is keeping his wonderful "Splog" alive, and you'll find there more tributes to Michael from people who knew him. I'm grateful that Michael will continue to be with us through his blog, and especially through his films.
He died early this morning, more than three years after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He shared that diagnosis with only a few people even as he continued to work as an independent animator and an incredibly productive blogger. His widow, Heidi Stallings, sent me the following obituary, which was written by Michael's good friend John Canemaker.
Michael Sporn, an Academy Award nominee for Best Animated Short Film and the director of more than thirty television specials for broadcast outlets such as HBO, PBS, Showtime and CBS died on January 19th in New York City. He was 67.
The cause of death was pancreatic cancer, his wife the actress and director Heidi Stallings said.
Long a mainstay of New York independent animation filmmakers, Michael Sporn earned a 1984 Academy Award nomination for the short film Doctor DeSoto, adapted from the William Steig children’s book. It was one of fifteen short children’s films Sporn produced and directed for distributor Weston Woods, including Steig’s Abel’s Island (1988), which was nominated for an Emmy Award; The Amazing Bone (1985), winner of a CINE Golden Eagle; and The Man Who Walked Between the Towers (2005), winner of the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Children’s Video and Best Short Children’s Film award from the Ottawa International Animation Festival.
Sporn’s animated HBO specials adapted from children’s books and tales include: Lyle Lyle Crocodile (1987); The Red Shoes (1989); Mike Mulligan and His Steamshovel (1990); The Marzipan Pig (1990); Ira Sleeps Over (1992, CableACE Award winner); Goodnight Moon and Other Stories (1999, Emmy winner); Happy to Be Nappy and Other Tales (2006); Whitewash (1995, Emmy winner); I Can Be President (2011).
He also created animated titles and inserts for live-action features, such as Sidney Lumet’s Prince of the City (1981) and Garbo Talks (1984), and Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan (1985).
On Broadway, Sporn’s animation appeared as interactive elements in two musicals: Meet Me in St. Louis (1989) and Woman of the Year (1981).
Michael Sporn was born in New York City on April 23, 1946, the second child of William and Amelia Young Sporn, and grew up in Jackson Heights. His father abandoned the family when Michael was two, and his mother subsequently had three more children with her second husband, Mario Rosco.
Sporn drew cartoons “right from the beginning,” he told an interviewer in 2010, and, encouraged by his stepfather, made 8mm films at age seven. A self-taught animator, he gathered advice from the few how-to-animate books available in the late 1950s and from two television series, Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color and Walter Lantz’s The Woody Woodpecker Show.
He attended the New York Institute of Technology from 1963 to 1967, then enlisted in the US Navy serving as a Russian language decoder in Alaska.
In 1972, he began working professionally in animation under several noted producers and directors. For John and Faith Hubley, he worked on the short film Cockaboody (1973); The Adventures of Letterman series for the 1971-77 PBS series The Electric Company; and the TV special Everybody Rides the Carousel ( 1975). He was an animator on the 1977 feature film Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure for director Richard Williams; and for R.O. Blechman, he supervised numerous TV commercials and the PBS special Simple Gifts (1977).
Sporn formed his own production company, Michael Sporn Animation, Inc., in 1980, and at the time of his death, was producing and directing Poe, an animated feature based the life of Edgar Allan Poe.
Michael Sporn gave a running start to many a young animator’s careers. He was not merely an employer, but a mentor, offering on-the-job lessons in the appreciation of animation history and its filmmakers, and candid, thoughtful opinions on the seven lively arts and artists of all stripes.
On December 5, 2005, not coincidentally Walt Disney’s birthday, Sporn launched a blog, Splog, which made him a teacher in the larger sense. Splog ran continuously almost every day for eight years, encompassing nearly 3,000 posts. His detailed analysis of films, their sequences, discussions and promotions of artist’s careers and new work, and his often emotional and sulfurous reviews attracted a wide international audience. The site was a tribute to Michael Sporn’s energy, imagination, and dedication to the art of animation in all its forms. “I think,” he once said, “animation has the potential of being the greatest of all the arts.”
In addition to Ms. Stallings, he is survived by his sisters Patricia Sherf and Christine O’Neill, and brothers Jerry Rosco and John Rosco.
What a sad day this is. I may once have thought that reaching an advanced age would provide some sort of immunization against the worst of grief. Not so; I cried earlier this month when my sweet mother-in-law died, and I cried when Heidi told me soon afterwards that Michael was very close to death. Tears insisted on barging into my life again today. Michael was a wonderful friend, a dedicated artist, and one of the very best people in a field, animation, that he loved with a consuming passion. Michael's genius, and his curse, was that he could do so much with such tiny budgets. I will never cease to wonder what he might have accomplished with the money that always seems to be available to people with only a fraction of his talent and none of his integrity.
Michael and I were continually in touch for almost forty years. We certainly didn't agree about everything; for instance, he loved UPA (I don't), and he once remarked to me that he couldn't remember ever laughing at a Warner Bros. cartoon. But disagreeing about such things was always a source of pleasure for us, not of rancor. I cannot recall a time when I did not enjoy his company.
I've written about Michael's films any number of times here, and in reviewing those commentaries I feel a certain satisfaction with a couple of pieces about the 2007 Sporn retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (the linked item is a preview of the retrospective; scroll up for a report I wrote after the showings), and also with a page I devoted to the DVD releases of some of his films. But more than reading about his films, you should try to see some of them. You might start with The Marzipan Pig and The Man Who Walked Between the Towers. If you open yourself to such films, which are so unlike most animated fare these days, you may share some of my intense regret that we will see no more like them.
August 2011: New collections of classic Disney comics, the Corny Cole interview, Chuck Jones enshrined at a casino, Dave Hand on ones and twos, is innocence bliss when watching cartoons?
July 2011: Mystery men at Disney's Hyperion studio, The Illusionist.
June 2011: Inking at Disney's in 1931, the Fred Kopietz interview.
May 2011: New Disney books, problems with interviews, the passing of the great collector Bill Blackbeard.
April 2011: More on Walt's church in Chicago and the Dumbo Roll-A-Book, Lynn Karp interviewed.
March 2011: John Hubley and Milt Kahl interviewed, Roger Armstrong remembers life at the Lantz studio in 1944-45, Walt Disney visits Evanston, Illinois, on the Fourth of July 1957.
February 2011: Tim Walker and Mark Kausler, the Bob McKimson interview and more McKimson matter, the Huffington Post stirs up a storm.
January 2011: Flogging the Dell/Disney comic books, Tangled, potpourris of items about Walt Disney and Bob Clampett and new books, Glen Keane speaks about Tangled in French, a "Flying Gauchito" mystery, Walt meets Princess Margaret and suffers under a double standard.
November 2010: Carl Stalling on acetate, lost Laugh-O-grams found, Børge Ring on Alice in Wonderland, Tim Susanin's book.
October 2010: Books: Jim Korkis's Vault of Walt, Craig Yoe's Felix, John Canemaker's Two Guys Named Joe and J. B. Kaufman's South of the Border with Disney.
September 2010: John Benson on Avatar and IMAX 3-D, Mike Maltese and his Bugs Bunny painting, Craig Yoe writes, Satoshi Kon, The Ducktators in the flesh, Chronicle Books' animation volumes.
July 2010: Toy Story 3, Milt Gray's web comic strip, sad news about Roy Rogers and Harvey Pekar, my 1997 interview with John K., more on the mysterious Mortimer Mouse, reprinted comic books.
June 2010: Dave Smith retires, more on the Dumbo Roll-A-Book, Barks on a T-shirt, Waking Sleeping Beauty.
May 2010: "Mickey Mouse" and D-Day, animation: the delusion of life, Børge Ring on Jack Kinney, my visit to Moscow and Saint Petersburg, George Sherman's Barks painting, more on the Dumbo Roll-A-Book.
April 2010:How to Train Your Dragon, Carl Barks tells how he worked, Fantasia and the fundamentalists
March 2010: More on the Dumbo Roll-A-Book, questions for Walt Disney, the "family tree" of animation, a 1967 gathering of pioneers at Montreal, Dumbo's premiere, Dumbo in print, Walt's adventures in the Ivy League, Fess Parker remembered.
February 2010: The mysterious Dumbo Roll-A-Book, Oscars and Annies, Disney and Tolkien.
January 2010: More on The Princess and the Frog, Kurtzman's Humbug, Dumbo's crows, The Animated Man in Italy, Richard Todd and Walt Disney on the set.
December 2009:The Princess and the Frog and Fantastic Mr. Fox, a cel fire at the Mintz studio, Richard Todd, Roy Edward Disney, Hal Sintzenich's diaries, more hot air from an "archivist."
November 2009: On the sidewalk with Charlie Mintz, a visit to Saint Louis, when Fantasia spread out, on the barricades with Art Babbitt.
October 2009: "Sincerity," Ward Kimball photographs R. Crumb, Walt Kelly writes to Walt Disney, losing illusions in today's Hollywood animation business, more on Walt Disney at Harvard (and Yale), Art Spiegelman in Arkansas, the Walt Disney Family Museum opens its doors.
September 2009: What Walt Disney was doing in London in 1935 and New York in 1940, George Winkler and Andrew Stone and Charlie Mintz, Walt Disney and Norman Rockwell, Dr. Seuss' advertising films, Li'l Eight Ball's disappearance from comic books, shipboard with Walt and family in 1949, the curious case of Mortimer Mouse.
August 2009: Carl Barks on exhibit in Baltimore, the mystery of Barks's Donald Duck, Lillian Disney speaks in public, early omens on The Princess and the Frog, Classic Children's Comics, Walt Disney in Ireland, home again from a long summer journey.
June 2009: Taking a summer break, Egghead and Elmer, more on Sita Sings the Blues, Pixar's Up, the role of words and drawings in early Disney story work.
May 2009: Reading the funnies in bulk, Keith Lango's ideas about "visual harmony," Walt Disney goes to Harvard, John Canemaker goes to Kansas City, Sita Sings the Blues, Disney and Columbia, fictitious "Walt Disneys" on stage and screen, David Gerstein's blog, Monsters vs. Aliens, more on Dave Hand, Milt Kahl as "the animation Michelangelo."
April 2009: Easter greetings from Warner Bros. Cartoons, Børge Ring on David Hand, Ken Annakin, Dick Huemer, Floyd Norman, Ferguson's flypaper sequence revisited, Disney's walled garden, Don Bluth, the Walt Disney Family Museum, Bob Clampett's secret life.
March 2009: Walt Kelly comics from Fairy Tale Parade, Chuck Jones on TCM, Walt Disney at Dumbo's premiere, Emil Flohri, Coraline, Watchmen, in the Disney music rooms in 1931, a case of mistaken identity, ten years of Hollywood Cartoons.
February 2009: Acting in animation, with a riveting memory of Bill Tytla, Coraline, 3-D pro and con, cartoon cocktails, the first Disney annual report, Marceline faces from Walt Disney's time, a Marceline myth.
January 2009: "The Three Little Pigs" as drawn by Walt Kelly, Ted Eshbaugh's studio in 1931, "card check" in 1941 and 2009, The Tale of Despereaux, Walt Disney sails from Chile to New York on the Santa Clara.
December 2008:The Spirit on the screen, cartoon directors' Christmas cards, trying to identify a mystery man, books: Spirited Away, Popeye, and The Animated Man, Bolt and Madagascar 2, Dave Hilberman's FBI file.
November 2008: Back from Italy, live-action Disney on Turner Classic Movies.
October 2008:The Wall Street Journal on Pixar and Disney,Walt at the keyboard, Chuck Jones and Eddie Selzer, Chuck at MGM, "Directors and Directions," salvaging Disney's California Adventure, Walt Disney's attitude toward women, "Of Cabbages and Kleins," The Perfect American as novel and opera, on the set of Invitation to the Dance.
September 2008: Visiting J. R. Bray, Ben Sharpsteen and his museum, Elias Disney in his own words, the ancestral Disney lands in Ontario, a book ban in Burbank.
August 2008: Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising remembered, Michael Sporn's role on The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, more on Wertham, Sporn DVDs.
July 2008: More Looney Tunes on DVD, WALL•E and Kung Fu Panda, Walt Disney's stump, Bill Tytla's voice, Disney anniversaries, Wertham's locked vault, Schulz and Peanuts demolished, more on Walt and Dolores.
May-June 2008: Walt Disney's Kansas City building, Walt and polo (and polo-related deaths), Japanese features, Walt and Dolores Del Rio, late-period Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett in Canada, Walt Disney meets Robert Taylor in 1938 and visits Marceline and Saint Louis in 1946, the post-modern Goofy, The Colored Cartoon.
April 2008: The Jones-Avery letter, what Walt Disney really thought about Goofy, the "Censored 11," Borge Ring on Hans Perk, remembering Ollie Johnston, Two Days in the Life: Kansas City, 1922, more on Walt Disney's 1922 want ads, Walt's skeptical supervisor at Kansas City Film Ad, Bob Clampett and Ollie Johnston share a table, the Schulz kidnaping, Nick Cross and The Waif of Persephone.
March 2008: Walt Disney's want ads in 1922, Dick Huemer's Buck O'Rue, A Day in the Life: Disney, January 1930 and February 1927, A Day in the Life: Walt Kelly, 1955, The Animated Man in trade paper, Walt Disney meets Yma Sumac and visits Atlanta, responding to complaints about negative criticism, Bob Clampett at work, "What Would Bob Do?"
February 2008: Walt Disney and Joan Bennett in 1942, an interview with Elias and Flora Disney, debate about Buckaroo Bugs, Emery Hawkins at Lantz, Walt Disney in England, Carl Barks's first issue of Uncle Scrooge, Jim Bodrero interview, photos of Warner story man Lloyd Turner, remembering Roger Armstrong.
January 2008: Dell comic books, Ward Kimball, Chuck Jones, Joe Grant and hero worship, more on writing for animation (and why some people spread falsehoods about it), Walt Disney's 1934 trip to Hawaii, Hanna-Barbera celebrated in a book, Bob Clampett, Satoshi Kon, more on the voices of Walt's Alice.
December 2007: Writing for animation, Margaret O'Brien and Walt Disney's Alice, Jack Zander, more on UPA, Rod Scribner at work, Borge Ring, a "mystery studio," Byron Haskin and Disney's Treasure Island, more on Coal Black, Walt and Lillian on the town, revisiting Raggedy Ann & Andy and Wizards, Satoshi Kon's budgets.
November 2007:Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs, Mickey's birthplace in New York, the UPA book, the Michael Sporn retrospective at MoMA, the ideas that interviews can stimulate.
October 2007: Carl Stalling interviewed, Dick Huemer remembered, more on Walt Disney and Zorro, the controversy over the Schulz biography, Joe Penner and the "Agony, agony!" catchphrase, Walt and The Art Spirit, Walt in Hawaii, the Ottawa International Animation Festival, The Jungle Book revisited.
August 2007: Walt and the librarians, independent animators, the mystery of Walt's Goldwater button solved, Diane Disney Miller blasts Neal Gabler, Paprika, interviews with Clarence Nash, Jim Macdonald, and Billy Bletcher, Pete Emslie's guidelines for animal characters, Ratatouille.
July 2007: More on Harry Reichenbach, Walt Disney and Igor Stravinsky, Surf'sUp, Walt at Smoke Tree Ranch, Dave Hilberman, The Iron Giant revisited, Michael Sporn and Walter Lantz on DVD, Ratatouille.
June 2007: More on Walt Disney's Goldwater button, more on the flypaper sequence, Roger Armstrong, Disney in Deutschland, Ratatouille, Walt and Zorro, more on Walt and T. H. White, Harry Reichenbach and Steamboat Willie, the auctioning of Carl Barks's estate.
May 2007: UPA wars on the blogs, Ferguson's flypaper sequence, Walt Disney's employment contract, Harry Reichenbach, Disney art at Montreal, Walt writes to T. H. White, selling The Animated Man in L.A.
April 2007:The Animated Man, Fergy ruffs, Meet the Robinsons.
March 2007:The Animated Man, Cartoon Brew Films, a Cock Robin mosaic and documents, a Dumbo essay, the Goldwater button again, Walt and the space program.
February 2007: More on writing v. drawing, Paul Hindemith meets Walt Disney, Fantasia, Van Beuren dolls, Bob Clampett and Edgar Bergen.
January 2007: Walt's Goldwater button, Neal Gabler's errors, writing v. drawing cartoon stories, a Disney exhibition at Paris, Happy Feet.
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