For reasons mentioned in the text below, using frame enlargements from The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad seemed impractical, so I've illustrated this piece with two model sheets from February 1941, when The Wind in the Willows (released in 1949)was first in production. This Toad sheet is by Jim Bodrero (thanks to Didier Ghez for correcting my earlier misattribution). Courtesy of Eldon Dedini (who worked on the story after World War II with Homer Brightman and Harry Reeves).
Frame by Frame with Michael Hodous
Back about a hundred years ago, in the very earliest days of the Betamax and the laserdisc player—and long before I could afford to buy a machine of either kind—I spent many hours at the Library of Congress' motion picture section hunched over a Steenbeck editing machine, looking at films on a small screen. I had lots of company in the viewing room in those days, academic types and freelance writers who were there for the same reason I was, to see films that in many cases it was difficult or impossible to see any other way. Scheduling time at a Steenbeck then could be as difficult as snagging a table at a hot new restaurant. No more. It has been a few years since I watched films at the LC, and I don't recall that any other viewers were there the last time I did.
One of the small pleasures of watching cartoons on a Steenbeck was the opportunity it offered to watch part of a cartoon frame by frame, repeatedly if I wished to do so (as I sometimes did). I'd want to see just what was happening at some point in a cartoon, how some effect was achieved, and the Steenbeck made that easy. My own frame-by-frame viewing mostly ended after I finished my book Hollywood Cartoons in 1997, but frame-by-frame viewing is easier than ever now, thanks to DVDs and Blu-rays. As Michael Hodous recently told me, such close study can still yield puzzling and amusing surprises:
Back in 1979 when you made a thorough study of The Adventures of
Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949) at the Library of Congress, did you notice that
the camera department photographed two cell setups out of sequence?
approximately 0:32:08 according to my Blu-ray disc player, Mole has just
gotten the deed to Toad Hall away from Winky. Mole makes a mad dash down
the Long Hall of Toad's ancestral family home, pursued by the entire
pack of weasels determined to let Mole experience a close encounter with
a bullet, a knife, or a blunt instrument. Then, attempting to pass
through an archway halfway down the Long Hall, Mole discovers that the
Long Hall isn't as long as it looked as he crashes into a
floor-to-ceiling mirror, resulting in considerable destruction of
property, not to mention seven years bad luck, which Mole proceeds to
use up at an alarming rate.
Just a few frames before Mole hits the mirror, he speeds up
slightly, jumps back slightly, then jumps forward again. You won't
notice it unless you step through the sequence frame by frame, but those
two frames photographed out of order must have been there forever, which
makes me wonder why nobody ever noticed it in a sweatbox.
Or could that be a more subtle version of some of the effects in Bob
Clampett's Kitty Kornered, where the old drunk cat crashes into a door,
which suddenly changes shape and color? Just two frames out of order,
just enough perhaps to induce a slight feeling of unease a tiny fraction
of a second before the payoff when Mole crashes into the mirror?
often during the course of your work do you end up feeling like the
German Kaiser informed that the Russian Czar has just died:
"But what could have been his motive?"
And there's more:
In the words of an old public service television commercial from sixty years ago, "This accident should not have happened." If you step through the last ten or twenty frames before impact, both the viewer and Mole should have seen Mole's reflection in the mirror before the mirror became no longer a mirror. But wasn't that the title of a Disneyland TV show first broadcast on October 31st, 1956: "The Plausible Impossible"? The crash happens so fast that you never have a chance to notice that little detail, and after the crash you're laughing too hard to worry about such a mere bagatelle. After all, great art should improve on reality, not be bound by it.
My notes don't show that I picked up on such details, although I must say that I did notice a lot of other stuff. Here again, I must defer to Mike Hodous on what he saw when Mole crashes into the mirror, keyed to the frame captures he sent to me:
The frames named Mole_001 through Mole_064 document Mole's close encounter of the worst kind. Note that 019 and 020 [the frames mentioned above, just before Mole hits the mirror] are shot out of sequence.
Mole crashes into the mirror in frame 032. All this stuff is fast action, so it's animated with a separate drawing for every frame. This continues up to frame 035. From there Mole is still animated one drawing per frame, but the broken glass that's flying in all directions is often exactly the same in two successive frames.
Besides saving time, paper, and money, this may be even better artistically. It gives the viewer more time to make order out of chaos, rather than shards flying too fast to recognize as such if the glass were animated with separate drawings for each frame. Frank and Ollie mentioned this effect on page 65 (and a more extreme case on page 230) of the first edition of Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life.
I've wanted to show some of Mike's frame captures here, although posting enough of them to illutrate the points he makes would consume a lot of pixels, but, in any case, they haven't proved amenable to transfer to my web authoring program. Better, perhaps, that you buy the Blu-ray, if you don't already own it, and explore it on your own. Ichabod and Mr. Toad is not one of the greatest Disney cartoons, but as what Mike Hodous has discovered should suggest to you, it holds much more to enjoy than most contemporary features.
This "temporary Rat model" was initialed by Campbell Grant and drawn by him. Courtesy of Gene Hazelton.
The Jungle Book: I was warned away from this new Disney feature because, I was told, it simply reproduces the 1967 cartoon in synthetic live action (and with a live boy as Mowgli). Yes and no. I've never much liked the cartoon—too sloppy and jokey for my taste—and although the new movie tracks the old one pretty closely, it's darker and even a little scary. That's an improvement, I think, although Jon Favreau, the director of the new version, would have won more of my tepid applause if he had scrapped King Louie's musical number (or been allowed to scrap it, who knows), since it's now grotesquely incongruous.
What Disney needs to do, to keep this particular ball rolling, is to start making cartoon versions of some of its live-action movies. How about a CGI version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, with seals and porpoises as the lead characters? And then, in cross-pollination with Pixar, there could be a sequel called Finding Captain Nemo. Or how about a slapstick cartoon version of Old Yeller in which the dog sneers to the camera, in Seth MacFarlane fashion, about his owners' cluelessness, and springs back to life after he has supposedly been doomed by rabies. ("Fooled ya! Hey, you know I always get my shots!") Lots of possibilities, all of them dreadful, which should recommend them to Disney's current management.
Muto: No doubt many of the visitors to my site are aware ofMuto, summarized on YouTube as "a short film by Blu: an ambiguous animation painted on public walls," apparently in Argentina. I'd missed it until Andrew Keegan called it to my attention. An impressively strange film. Andrew says, "It reminded me a bit of an
Out-of-the-Inkwell cartoon—one that escaped the studio and wandered the
city. I wonder what the Fleischer brothers would have thought of it."
It reminded me even more of a lot of cold, impersonal, essentially abstract European cartoons, but it somehow made a very different impression on me, I'm sure because it's so fascinating to watch the animation's progression across those public walls. Very much worth a look. This is yet another occasion when I wish Michael Sporn were still with us—I always wish that, but especially when I'd love to know what he thought of a particular film. Muto dates from 2008, six years before Michael's death, but I don't find anything about it on Michael's Splog, which is, happily, still with us even though Michael himself is not.
Bugs Bunny in 1949: When you write books about comics and cartoons and post on a website like this one, it's particularly gratifying to learn that some people read what you write, understand what you're saying, and find your writings useful as launching pads for their own thoughts. That's how I felt when I read Joshua Wilson's blog, F for Films: Essays on the Movies. One of his first offerings is a comparison of four Bugs Bunny cartoons from 1949, one each by Davis, McKimson, Freleng, and Jones. My book Hollywood Cartoons has served Josh as a starting point, but his thoughts are his own. I enjoyed reading his essay, and if you share my intense interest in the Warner Bros. cartoons, I think you will, too.
From Bob Barrett, who shares my admiration for one of the mainstays of Oskar Lebeck's Dell comic books of the 1940s:
Did I ever send you a scan of this Morris Gollub painting? I bought
this back in 2008 from two brothers living in Missouri. The brother I
dealt with stated that his father, an antique dealer, found the painting
in an old theater in St. Louis that was being demolished. His father
liked the painting and kept it until he passed away and his sons
The sons heard that Antiques Roadshow was going to be doing
appraisals for their television show here in Wichita, Kansas. They
purchased tickets and brought the painting here to be appraised. The appraisers had no knowledge of who Morris Gollub was and refused to
even speculate what it might be worth.
I didn't find out about the
painting until a week after Antiques Roadshow had left. The
brothers contacted a website on Jesse Marsh to ask if they would happen
to know of anyone that would be interested in buying the painting. The
website manager emailed me with the brothers' story and I contacted them
and negotiated to buy the painting.
Since Moe Gollub left St. Louis in 1937 to join Disney, I have
speculated that he painted this before he began working for
Disney. He was probably commissioned by the theater manager to execute
the painting to hang in the lobby of the theater. But that is only
speculation on my part.
The painting is signed on the reverse, "Gollub," but it is obvious to me
that it is his work.
Back on February 25, I wrote about the difficulties I'd encountered in trying to pry Walt Kelly's FBI file out of the clutches of either the FBI or the National Archives, whoever might have it. I wrote again to the FBI a few weeks ago, summarizing the frustrations I'd encountered in trying to locate that file, and last week I got what is probably the final word. David M. Hardy of the bureau's records management division told me:
Based on the information you provided, we conducted an additional search of the indices to our Central Records System. We were unable to identify main or cross-reference file records responsive to the [Freedom of Information Act].
So much for that. If there ever was an FBI file on Kelly—and I'm sure there was—it no longer exists, or it is so completely lost that it might as well be nonexistent. As to what was in that file, there's a summary on page 120 of the 1992 book Pogo Files for Pogophiles, by Selby Daley Kelly (Walt's widow) and Steve Thompson. No startling revelations there, really no revelations of any kind, but it remains frustrating that the primary material is out of reach, probably permanently.
Phyllis and I have been pinned down for the last six months, at first by daily visits to her 91-year-old father, hospitalized with a broken hip, and then, once he was settled in the comfortable retirement home where my own parents ended their lives, by all the duties attendant on selling his home and otherwise wrapping up most of his affairs. Everything has taken much more time and been much more difficult than we hoped, and this website has been one of the casualties. We have taken only a few short breaks—never more than a day's drive away from home—one of which was a two-day swing for Phyllis's birthday to a couple of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in northwest Arkansas and northeast Oklahoma. (Wright's only completed skyscraper, in the oil town of Bartlesville, Oklahoma, is now in part a hotel, the Inn at Price Tower, where we spent the night.) On the way home we spent a couple of hours at the Will Rogers Memorial in Claremore, Oklahoma, a place I'd always wanted to visit but had never seeen. It's well worth a detour if you're passing through Oklahoma on I-40.
The very helpful docents confirmed what I suspected: as celebrated as he once was, Will Rogers is no longer even a name to many of the Memorial's American visitors. The foreign visitors tend to be more Rogers-aware, the docents said, but it may be that a European or Asian tourist who makes his or her way to Claremore is just more likely to be there specifically to visit the Memorial; I'd guess that many American visitors wander in on their way to someplace else.
And. truth to tell, I'm not surprised that Rogers's celebrity has faded. Much of his humor, whether heard on old radio broadcasts or read on the page, has held up no better than most topical humor, and some of his most celebrated sayings, robbed of context, can seem downright simpleminded. (His most famous saying, and I would say the most embarrassing, is the one carved on the base of the statue in the photo above.) Rogers was a very popular movie star in the first half of the 1930s, and John Ford, who directed him in three features, spoke of him warmly, but he was no actor, and his movies, at least the ones I've seen, are not much good. His early success in vaudeville as a fantastically skillful trick roper, documented in silent movies, is even more remote. So, Will Rogers is likely to be known today, more than eighty years after his death, less for his own accomplishments than as someone whose fame was once so great that his home state placed his statue in the U.S. Capitol's National Statuary Hall Collection.
If Disney fans are aware of Rogers, it may be mostly because he played polo with Walt and other people from the studio. (He was to have been caricatured as one of the players in Mickey's Polo Team, but he was replaced by Charlie Chaplin after his death in a 1935 plane crash in Alaska.) Despite Rogers's prominence as a polo player, there is no polo memorabilia on display at the Memorial, and nothing to link Walt Disney and Will Rogers. A docent me told that the Memorial does own one very ordinary polo-playing outfit, but that preserving it would be outrageously expensive, who knows why.
One of the Disney polo players—Roy Disney, I think, although I can't lay my hands on that quotation—spoke of Rogers coolly, as a rough and unpleasant competitor, but after visiting the Memorial I could understand why he might seem that way. The entrance hall at the Rogers Memorial is devoted to displays of mounted saddles, and a docent told me that after Rogers left Oklahma for New York and Los Angeles, he took a horse with him wherever he went. He was a man who was completely at home on a horse, and he surely regarded many of his fellow polo players as dilettantes.
And if you're wondering what a Frank Lloyd Wright skyscraper might look like, that's the Price Tower at the right.
Ward Kimball, the only Disney animator present, signed copies of the catalog for the "Building a Better Mouse" exhibition at the Library of Congress for guests at the black-tie banquet on November 20, 1978. The exhibition opened to the public the next day. Yes, I still have my autographed copy of the catalog.
When We Celebrated Mickey's Fiftieth
We are barely more than two years away from the ninetieth anniversary of the premiere of Steamboat Willie at the Colony Theatre in New York City—Mickey Mouse's ninetieth birthday, that is, although I doubt that the Walt Disney Company will make a big deal of it. After all, ninety is pretty darned old. Paying too much attention to Mickey's birthday might even prompt some rude questions about whether there is any justification for extending the copyright term for Steamboat Willie yet again, and, still more to the point, just how it is that extending an existing copyright term stimulates the creativity of people who are long dead. Would Walt have made Steamboat Willie or a much more ambitious and riskier film like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs if the copyright term at the time was only twenty-eight years (fifty-six years with a renewal)? Wait—that's exactly what he did. Next question.
I've been put in mind of Mickey's impending anniversary by the recent publication of Garry Apgar's splendid tribute, Mickey Mouse: Emblem of the American Spirit, a book about which I hope to say considerably more later this spring. That book has also reminded me of the high-decibel celebration that accompanied Mickey's fiftieth anniversary, in November 1978. I played a minor role in that celebration, as the curator of an exhibition at the Library of Congress, titled Building a Better Mouse: Fifty Years of Animation. (The title I proposed originally was Building a Better Mouse: Fifty Years of Disney Animation, which was exactly what the exhibit was about. As best I can recall, the "Disney" was scrapped because one or more people in authority thought it sounded too commercial, or something.) The exhibition, which combined video, items from the Disney Archives, and books from the Library of Congress' collection, opened on November 21, 1978. It was preceded the evening before by a black-tie banquet in the Library's Great Hall; the photos here were taken on that occasion.
The exhibition was so popular that its run was extended by a month. But the Library of Congress is a rather curious institution, a cross-breeding of government and academia, and having curated a very popular exhibition about Walt Disney did me no good at all with many people there, notably at the Library's high-toned Swann Foundation for Cartoon and Caricature Studies. At the time, I needed work and, especially, money to help me finish the book that became Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, but there was none of either to be found at the Library. I don't recall, if I ever knew, just how the Library came to put up a Disney exhibition in the first place, but it does seem curious in retrospect.
Daniel Boorstin, the Librarian of Cognress, spoke at the black-tie banquet in the Library's Great Hall. I'm the dark-haired and bearded man at the table at the lower right. This was the Monday before Thanksgiving, so members of Congress were scarce, but Clare Boothe Luce was there. I didn't meet her, but I did meet Lillian Disney Truyens, for the one and only time.
Daniel Boorstin, the Librarian of Congress, with the birthday boy at the banquet.
A glimpse of the Pinocchio and Fantasia sections of the exhibition.
As a senior citizen and a former business writer, I tend to be more interested these days in the Walt Disney Company as a very large and very active corporation than as the source of anything of artistic interest. When Tom Staggs dropped out of the running to succeed Robert Iger as Disney's CEO, my first thought was of Iger's own strategy, which has been based above all on acquisitions: Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar. Staggs, I thought, must have figured out that there was nothing left for Disney to buy, and so his own performance as CEO would inevitably suffer compared with Iger's.
Most of Disney's homegrown products, like Frozen, have been conceived in the same intensely commercial spirit as the acquisitions, as "franchises" that can generate not just sequels but many other sources of earnings. I assume such thinking was not absent during work on Zootopia, the most recent Disney animated feature, but here, for once, it's not controlling, and so Zootopia is, for me, the most purely enjoyable Disney feature in many years.
The movie is endlessly clever and inventive in exploiting its basic conceit, that mammals have somehow evolved to the point that carnivores and herbivores live together peaceably (and wear clothes) in what might be called a human city, if there were any trace of humans in it. There are plenty of echoes of human society, in the lemming bankers and sloth bureaucrats, but never any sense that the animals are simply stand-ins. As Walt Kelly once said, a cartoonist "can do more with animals"; they lend themselves to vigorous comedy better than human characters do. The feeling I got from Zootopia was that the people who made it understood what a gift they had in their cast of animal characters, and they relished putting their animals to work.
As always with modern-day Disney cartoons, a few footnotes are in order. The story itself—Judy Hopps, a young female bunny policeman, solves a budding crime wave with the help of Nick Wilde, a fox con man—could have been lifted from the scripts for any number of live-action movies, everything from low-budget crime movies of the 1940s to the Eddie Murphy-Nick Nolte pairing in 48 Hrs. Likewise, the very slow-talking sloths at the DMV quite likely owe their existence to a wonderful old Bob and Ray routine. Such resemblances don't bother me in the least; probably we're supposed to notice them, and why not, since they're not imitations but sly variations on the originals.
Zootopia is a little too long, and there is too much talk. This is another of those Disney movies with multiple directors (Byron Howard and Rich Moore, plus Jared Bush as "co-director"), and hundreds of other credits, and I have to believe that the credit overload has some connection with the movie's excesses; it's almost as if everyone who worked on it had to have a piece they could point to as theirs. But then, Zootopia benefits from a richness of visual detail, in shots of city streets that are full of animals, and surely that detail was introduced into the movie through a process similar to what led to the verbal overload.
If any one thing about Zootopia annoyed me, it was the flashback in which we learn that the fox was mistreated by other young animals and, thus embittered, embarked on a career of petty crime. Simply to say, "Hey, that's what foxes are like" would presumably be unacceptable as species discrimination, even though other animals behave as they might be expected to behave if they wore clothes and talked but were still animals of a particular kind. The sentimentality embodied in that flashback says "John Lasseter" to me, although I have no idea if he was directly responsible for it.
That's a minor quibble, like every other quibble I could raise about Zootopia. It's a very good movie—and a very handsome movie, made with a mastery of CGI animation that I haven't seen in earlier Disney features. The leading characters will surely have long and happy lives as stuffed animals in many children's bedrooms, and they'll deserve the affection bestowed on them.
A Fred Moore model sheet for The Brave Little Tailor (1938), bearing Jack Kinney's credit for story. By the time this sheet was prepared, Bill Roberts (initials "W.O.R.") had replaced the original director, Burt Gillett, the subject of Kinney's less than favorable memories from work on the cartoon. Courtesy of Ross Wetzel.
In the "Kitchen" with Jack Kinney
I've published here two transcripts of interviews with Jack Kinney, from 1973 and 1976, and now I'm offering something a little different: extensive notes from my two interviews with Jack in December 1986. These notes are more rambling and informal than the interview transcripts, and I've paraphrased a good bit of what Jack said. In effect, I'm taking you into my "kitchen" and letting you sample some of the ingredients I gathered for my books on Walt Disney and the Disney cartoons. You can read those notes, and a fuller explanation of just what they are, by clicking on this link.
The good people at Comic-Con International have invited me to attend next July's con in San Diego as their "special guest" in the company of such luminaries as Howard Chaykin, Daniel Clowes, Paul Levitz, Trina Robbins, Jeff Smith, and Maggie Thompson, to mention only a few of the other special guests. D. Fae Desmond, the con's executive director, explained to me what being a special guest involves:
As part of your participation as a Special Guest, we ask that you appear on at least one program, a spotlight on you or your work, so your fans will have a chance to see you at the convention. Additionally, you may be asked to be on a separate panel with other guests of the show. Most guests also do an autograph signing after their spotlight program.
Sounds like fun. The Comic-Con's website, with a complete list of special guests, is at this link.
I've had some interesting—well, more frustrating than interesting, maybe—correspondence with the FBI and the National Archives in regard to an FBI file on Walt Kelly that may or may not exist.
That such a file exists, or did exist, seems likely, because Kelly had the effrontery to depict J. Edgar Hoover as a bulldog in the Pogo comic strip, back in the early 1970s. If the Russians could complain about Kelly's depiction of Nikita Khrushchev as a pig—and they did—then surely the FBI did not take kindly to a depiction of "the director" as a canine. That episode in the strip was published long after Kelly's comic-book work had ended, and it was of course his comic books that were of greatest interest to me when I was writing Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books; but considering that Pogo had political content almost from beginning, it seemed possible that Kelly had fallen under FBI scrutiny as early as the early 1950s.
I wrote to the FBI, and here's what happened, to quote from a letter I sent last October to the National Archives (NARA):
Several years ago, as part of my research for a book published by University of California Press, I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the FBI for copies of any records related to Walter Crawford Kelly Jr., known as Walt Kelly, the cartoonist who created the “Pogo” comic strip that was popular in the 1950s and 1960s. The FBI replied that “a search of the Central Records System maintained at FBI Headquarters indicated that potentially responsive records have been sent to NARA ... using file number 36-HQ-682 as a reference.”
I wrote to NARA, asking if the FBI’s records related to Mr. Kelly had been preserved at the National Archives and citing the file number the FBI had given me. I subsequently heard from Martha Wagner Murphy, chief, special access and FOIA staff, who wrote: “We located this file [36-HQ-682] in RG 65, Classification 36 (Mail Fraud) Headquarters Case Files; microfilm reel 10. This is a 1924 investigation of one E. C. Busey. The name you provided appears nowhere in the file. We have determined, therefore, that this file is not responsive to your request.”
Ms. Wagner suggested that I file another FOIA request with the FBI, asking for a search of FBI name indexes, but it was just such a search that yielded the incorrect file number in the first place.
I know that an FBI file on Walt Kelly almost certainly exists, or has existed; I have seen several references to it on the Web, although those references seem not to be based on firsthand knowledge. My question is, how might I best go about locating the missing file, considering that filing another FOIA request with the FBI would probably be futile?
It took some prodding, but NARA finally replied this month:
Unfortunately, at this time, we can only provide you with information specific to the case file number you provided. The FBI investigation case files in our custody are not arranged by name nor do we have a main file index to search by name. Our case files are arranged by Headquarters and Field Office thereunder by case file number. If you would like to locate files responsive to an individual, you will have to contact the FBI for a specific case file number.
I'm tempted to say the hell with it, but I'm wondering now if a Kelly FBI file ever existed, and if it still exists, what has happened to it. If you know, please tell me.
A guest post by Garry Apgar, author of the important new book Mickey Mouse: Emblem of the American Spirit:
The Italian intellectual and fiction writer Umberto Eco (1932-2016), best known for his historical novel The Name of the Rose, died on February 19th. Eco had a thing for the classic Disney of the 1930s. The names of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Horace Horsecollar, and Clarabelle Cow, for instance, playfully crop up in two other novels by Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2004).
In an October 12, 2002 article in The Guardian, “Signs of the Times,” Eco told journalist Maya Jaggi, “I’m not a fundamentalist, saying there’s no difference between Homer and Walt Disney. But Mickey Mouse can be perfect in the sense that a Japanese haiku is.”
If there is any truth in that remark, the American humorist and sometime cartoonist James Thurber may, by over sixty years, have beat Eco to the punch—on one point at least. In “The ‘Odyssey’ of Disney,” an essay in the March 28, 1934 issue of The Nation, Thurber said that his purpose in the piece was “to put forward in all sincerity and all arrogance the conviction that the right ‘Odyssey’ has yet to be done, and to name as the man to do it no less a genius than Walt Disney.”
One of two classic Mickey-themed images reproduced in Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.
Patrick Garabedian contributes these thoughts on Bart Beaty's Comics Versus Art (University of Toronto Press, 2012), a significant book that escaped my notice when it was published a few years ago:
Notwithstanding its pleasures—Beaty uses the outing of Carl Barks as the "good artist" as an example of comics fandom's importance in discovering an anonymous artist and validating him as truly an artist—I think the central premise of the work is wrong. Beaty sees a basic importance in the acceptance of comics by the museum-centered art world, to give them a place in the "legitimizing hierarchies" of "the serious or consecrated visual arts." He comes close to the truth of the matter on pp. 186-87, where he mentions the argument that "the appropriate place for comics [is] on the printed page, not on the bare white walls of the museum," that putting comics there [undermines] "the specificity of the form" (because the comics are not merely a visual art).
The first modern museum is supposed to have been established in Haarlem, Holland, just before the French Revolution, and for practical purposes the modern museum's birth can be dated to the establishment of the Louvre shortly afterwards. It was specifically designed to display objects that could be seen at one time by more than one person, principally painting and sculpture of the grand tradition—large objects, viewable by many from some distance, generally accepted as valuable and worth admiring.
These are limitations on what museums can legitimize by themselves. Even art forms of considerable antiquity and monetary worth, "minor arts" such as tapestries, furniture, jewelry, and illuminated manuscripts, can have a hard time gaining a presence in museum displays, especially if they cannot be seen by more than one person simultaneously.
Even today, generally accepted art forms such as music, opera, ballet, literature, and film can no more be displayed in this setting than comics without changing the museum venue into that art's venue (i.e., a film theater) or acknowledging that the visual art displayed is only a secondary aspect of that art form. That's absolutely true for comics, too.
These other art forms have to establish their validity by achieving their own popularity and longevity outside the museum setting, if their occasional forays into that setting are to be justified.
Such forays themselves are not what gives them validity as art forms.
The essence of comics—and comic books—is one person mentally immersed in the sequence of panels of the work, both the narrative (mainly text) and the art. Much more than by any presence in the gallery/auction house/museum worlds, comics must be validated as an art form by their widespread appeal (which right now,is being expanded by graphic novels and, somewhat sadly, by manga) and by their permanence (this is where I think their availability in book format , also as reprints and in libraries, becomes important). Foreign comics have not won acceptance in their cultures through the extent by which they are featured in museums, but through their wide popularity among adults as well as youngsters, and by generally more permanent publication formats than in the U.S
I like to say that this website doesn't generate the volume of comments that others do, but the comments tend to be far more thoughtful and articulate than what you find on other animation- and comics-related sites. Cases in point: when I posted a review of Didier Ghez's They Drew as They Pleased the other day, along with a notice about Garry Apgar's equally outstanding Mickey Mouse: Emblem of the American Spirit, I heard from both authors. You'll find their full comments by clicking on the link for comments on my January 26 item titled "A Winter of Discontent," but I'll quote from both of them here. First, Didier:
To be honest, I never thought of the drawings featured as masterpieces in themselves, the same way I never perceive single animation drawings as masterpieces. What really fascinates me is the behind-the-scenes of the creative process. Which is why I wanted to fill the book with large amounts of never-seen-before drawings. Each drawing, in itself, might not be a masterpiece, but the drawings taken as a whole give an idea of the richness of the options that the concept artists explored (and often discarded). This is especially true of Horvath and Hurter. When it comes to Tenggren, of course, some of his drawings are masterpieces in themselves. As to Bianca Majolie: I was able to uncover so little artwork that I really cannot tell. The chapter about her, as you certainly noticed, is more a justification to be able to write a whole chapter about women in the Story Department at Disney in the '30s (a story that will be completed in Volume 2) than anything else.
You say "Horvath's drawings, and his personal story, do not in themselves take us very far toward understanding why the cartoons turned out so well." You are absolutely correct, of course. The intent of They Drew As They Pleased was not to explain how Disney cartoons became the masterpieces that they are. This has already been done in the past and never better than in your own Hollywood Cartoons. With They Drew As They Pleased, I attempted to do three things:
- Give a sense of how rich the pre-production creative process was.
- Treat some of the men and women who worked on those animated cartoons and features as individual artists and not just as shadows hidden behind Walt.
- Reveal some of the drawings that history books have been discussing for years but that we had never seen.
I hope I succeeded.
As, of course, he did. For his part, Garry Apgar wrote about my reference to Martin Provensen's description of the Disney studio in the '30s as a "drawing factory."
In the conclusion of Emblem I quote Ray Bradbury, who called WED Enterprises Walt's "Idea Factory." In an earlier chapter, I link Andy Warhol's nickname for his studio operations, "The Factory," to the informal appellation of the Disney operation, the "Mouse Factory." Amusing wordplay, to be sure, involving the parallel, coincidental use of the term factory. But, I think, there's more to it than that.
Walt referred to the Disney studio as a "plant." The industrialization of entertainment and art for mass consumption in the 20th century, exemplified by Disney, was, most famously—among intellectuals and academics, anyway—addressed by Walter Benjamin in his study The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1933). Richard Schickel, in his often ungenerous volume, The Disney Version (1968) spoke, with grudging approval, of Walt's "appreciation of the possibilities inherent in technological progress."
I'm curious about the "industrial" innovations at the Mouse Factory in the '30s: the ways they fit into the bigger picture of how the Hyperion and Burbank studios functioned and grew during that period, and, by extension, Walt's vision for what he was trying to do. By innovations, I mean things like the invention—or perfection—of storyboarding (and the use of leica reels), model sheets, in-betweening, pencil tests, concept art, rotoscoping, and the institution of an educational and training program for rookie and veteran animators in the form of art classes, live model sessions, and lectures by senior men like Don Graham, Dave Hand, and Bill Tytla and guest speakers like Robert Feild and Leopold Stokowski.
They Drew As They Pleased, and the recently published books by Andreas Deja, Nine Old Men, and Don Hahn, Before Ever After: The Lost Lectures of Walt Disney’s Animation Studio, touch upon key aspects of these matters. But, unless I'm mistaken you're the person who, in your books and in posts and interviews on michaelbarrier.com, has most often and informatively dealt with them.
That said, it would be nice to see someone, some day, focus on the totality of Walt's "industrial" innovations and (to quote you) his "openness to experiment" in an in-depth, sustained, and comprehensive fashion. Properly done, and properly illustrated, that would truly be the Disney book of the year, maybe even of the decade.
That would indeed be an outstanding book, which I hope someone else (certainly not me!) will write some day.
I also heard from another exceptional author, Jenny Lerew, whose comments illuminated for me the process by which "art of" books like The Art of The Good Dinosaur come into being. She's the author of one such book, on Pixar's Brave.
I noticed, when visiting Didier's Disney History blog, that he had gotten double duty out of his review there of Garry Apgar's new book, by posting a five-star review of Emblem on amazon.com. I've posted very few reviews there, preferring to concentrate my efforts on this website, but that has probably been shortsighted of me, especially since I recently encouraged my visitors to post favorable reviews of my own books on amazon.com if they were so inclined. Amazon reviews and tweets and Facebook posts and the like seem to have more to do with awareness of a book than the longer reviews that I like to read, as in the New York Times and New York Review of Books. Athough I'll continue to put my greatest effort into reviews for this site, I'll try to cut more of those reviews down to a size that makes for a good amazon review.
Also, I'm now editing my 1976 Jack Kinney interview, and I hope to post it within the next couple of weeks. I expect you'll agree that this is one of most entertaining interviews I've posted here.
This has been a dreadful winter, not so much because of the weather—which has been better in Little Rock than in my former home in Virginia, as you know if you've watched the reports on winter storm Jonas—as because of illness and injury. Thanks to my father-in-law's broken hip, Phyllis and I have been living in an atmosphere of perpetual crisis since we returned from England in November. You may have heard or read dire warnings about just how serious a broken hip is in an elderly person (my father-in-law is 91). Those warnings are not exaggerated.
This website has been a casualty mainly of my preoccupation with the continuing family emergency, and secondarily of the long-lived virus or bug or whatever it is that and Phyllis and I have been fighting, in the company of any number of friends and neighbors, since late last year. I have a lengthening list of short and long items that I look forward to posting here, starting with my 1976 interview with Jack Kinney (a followup to the 1973 interview that I've already posted).
Despite the distractions, I haven't been entirely inactive this month. I've wanted to write more about Didier Ghez's new book, They Drew as They Pleased: The Hidden Art of Disney's Golden Age: The 1930s (Chronicle Books)—I posted a brief review, really not much more than a notice, in September—and I squeezed out enough time to write a more substantial piece than I thought might be possible. You can find it at this link. If you're not already aware of the book, it presents a generous sampling of the work of four of Disney's earliest concept artists, beginning with Albert Hurter and continuing through Gustav Tenggren, Ferdinand Horvath, and Bianca Majolie. That's Hurter in the photo at the left.
They Drew as They Pleased, which Didier Ghez expects to be the first in a series of five books covering Disney concept art from the 1930s to the present day, is in many respects a continuation and elaboration of John Canemaker's Before the Animation Begins (1996). Both books belong on the shelves of everyone who takes the great Disney shorts and features seriously.
The Ghez book is just one of a number of new books that command attention from people who care about animation. At the top of the pile is Garry Apgar'sMickey Mouse: Emblem of the American Spirit (Walt Disney Family Foundation Press), a lavishly illustrated history of the Mouse in his various incarnations (not neglecting his prehistory in the Alice and Oswald cartoons). I was privileged to observe some of the work that Apgar put into assembling this book, and I suspect that only other authors who've labored to get the necessary permissions for an illustrated book can appreciate the extraordinary quality of Mickey Mouse: Emblem of the American Spirit. Simply tracking down the illustrations for such a book is hard enough; obtaining permission to reproduce them, in an age when the law bends decidedly toward the copyright holder and away from the author, can be immensely frustrating as well as ruinously expensive.
And then, of course, there's the need, when a book is published under the Disney umbrella, to meet what may be, or probably will be, unreasonable demands of one kind or another, even the best books being decidedly subordinate to corporate priorities. (You'll find in Emblem a reference to Wally Wood's infamous "Disneyland Orgy" for The Realist, but not a trace of the drawing itself.) That Apgar's book has survived with so few scars is simply miraculous. I expect to have more, probably much more, to say about the book in the near future.
Giannalberto Bendazzi's name will be familiar to serious animation buffs thanks to his 1994 book Cartoons: One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation (published in the U.S. by Indiana University Press), easily the most comprehensive account of animation's history throughout the world. Until now, that is. It has been superseded—or so I must assume, without having had time to read the new books yet—by three volumes collectively titled Animation: A World History (Focal Press). The first volume may be of the greatest interest to people who, like me, care most about the Hollywood animated cartoons of the 1930s through the 1950s (the first volume cuts off at 1950); or perhaps the later volumes, with their extensive coverage of the relatively unfamiliar animation of Europe, Asia, and Africa, may be of greater interest, since the American cartoons have been the subjects of so much research and writing. It does seem to me that a reader might have more confidence in a book's handling of unfamiliar material if its handling of the familiar is trustworthy, and I'll approach the new books in that spirit. Bendazzi had lots of collaborators on the new books, and that may be a good sign, since the world history of anything is probably too much for one person to handle. More later.
Since I gave Pixar's The Good Dinosaur a tongue-lashing in a review last month, it seems only fair to acknowledge that Chronicle Books has sent me review copies of both The Art of The Good Dinosaur and The Art of Sanjay's Super Team, that being the short that accompanied Good Dinosaur in theaters. Like earlier Pixar/Chronicle "art of " entries, the new books are handsome, and in the case of the feature rather more interesting, I'm sorry to say, than the film itself. But maybe that's because, cynic that I am, I can't help wondering how much of this art was created with the books in mind, rather than the films. It's all too easy to imagine an art director at the publishing house telling someone at Pixar, "We really need better coverage on the dinosaurs' tea party," and someone at Pixar obliging with a handsome new drawing. Not that it would make much difference—would it?
In Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books, I write on pages 226-27 about Story Book Records, the little 78 rpm children's "picture records" from 1946 on which Walt Kelly told sixteen familiar stories, playing the parts of all the characters in vigorous, uninhibited performances. I own five of the eight records, and digital copies of all of them, but I was foreclosed from posting any of the records here, first by my agreement with the collector from whom I bought my digital copies, and second, where my own records are concerned, by my technical incompetence. I've posted clips from my interviews here, but those interviews are on cassette tapes; digital copies of 78 rpm records are beyond me. So, Kelly fans who've wanted to hear the master's voice haven't had many good options.
Mark also provides an illuminating comparison with the "Song of the Pogo" LP that Kelly made a decade later: "What I love about these records is that I got to experience the younger Walt Kelly when he had his full range of bass and treble and could do squeaky mouse voices or grumbling, roaring lion voices and narrate the story in his 'normal' tone of voice. As you listen to these, imagine you are watching Kelly pitch a storyboard, his pitching style was probably quite a lot like these records sound. His voice changed considerably by the time he recorded 'Go Go Pogo' and 'Lines Upon A Tranquil Brow' for the 1956 record album, 'Songs of the Pogo.' His energy fell considerably, he can barely bellow out 'Break Out the Cigars, This Life is For Squirr’ls. We’re off to the drugstore to whistle at girls.'"
I've never been able to warm up to the 1956 record, on which everyone, Kelly definitely included, seems strained and uncomfortable. Kelly's voice had indeed changed by then, diminished by a decade's worth of alcohol and cigars. The younger Kelly is much more fun to listen to.
I saw Pixar's latest feature the weekend that Disney's new Star Wars feature opened. I was one of four people in the audience for The Good Dinosaur. We saw a movie that was, I'm sure, considerably odder than the vastly more popular movie that was playing in an adjacent auditorium.
The alternative reality of The Good Dinosaur is one in which most of the dinosaurs were not wiped out by an asteroid's collision with the earth 65 million years ago, but survived instead for unspecified millions more years, ultimately sharing the planet with primitive human beings. An amusing premise, really, if you consider the comic possibilities in a dinosaur evolution that was not interrupted by a catastrophe. What if the remaining dinosaurs did not mutate eventually into birds—as scientists tell us—but changed in a different direction, becoming creatures more like us? Something like that is the premise, I gather, of the series of books under the title Dinotopia.
Perhaps it was to avoid any uncomfortable comparisons that Good Dinosaur's director, Peter Sohn, and his colleagues severely limited the number and species of the movie's dinosaurs. Arlo, the title character, his parents and his siblings are apatosaurs, close kin to the more familiar brontosaurs. Arlo encounters a trio of friendly tyrannosaurs and a somewhat larger number of raptors and pterodactyls, variously unctuous or merely vicious, but for the most part The Good Dinosaur's world is vast and empty.
Whatever his exact intentions, the story Sohn tells is unmistakably a creationist fable of the sort peddled by people who choose to read the Book of Genesis as if it were a science textbook. Slice away the opening few minutes, so that there's no mention of "millions of years," and you have not just a creationist fable but a young-earth creationist fable. Young-earth creationists believe not only that the earth and all its creatures, dinosaurs included, were created by a supreme supernatural being, but that the act of creation occured just a few thousand years ago. There's even a well-funded museum in Kentucky devoted to promoting young-earth creationism. I was tempted to visit it when I was in the vicinity a few years ago, but I decided I would almost certainly find it more sad than ridiculous.
What we see inThe Good Dinosaur—young apatosaurus and human child bonding as they elude perils in a pristine wilderness; dinosaurs and other animals from eras separated by millions of years living side by side—is exactly the sort of thing that young-earth creationists would have us believe really happened. The Good Dinosaur is set in a vivid, freshly created world in which dinosaurs have not evolved to have the opposable thumbs that would make agricultural pursuits conceivable (because evolution has never happened, you see), but have become farmers and ranchers anyway. It's probably an antediluvian world—the few human characters are in a state of nature—although creationists would argue that a healthy sampling of dinosaurs must have made it onto Noah's ark, surviving long enough to be remembered by humans as...dragons.
Well, and so what? Young-earth creationism may be silly—I certainly think so—but there's no reason a silly idea can't be the starting point for an entertaining movie. (See, for example, the 1977 movie that ignited the whole Star Wars phenomenon.) To judge from the noisy previews I saw with The Good Dinosaur, most of today's cartoon producers have embraced silliness with gusto. The Good Dinosaur is, however, a somber and exasperatingly serious movie about a stubbornly foolish subject. Its embrace of creationism smothers the imagination rather than unleashing it, and so there's none of the fun that could have been had from a movie about sentient dinosaurs who evolved to become something like people. Such a movie might have resembled Pete Docter's Monsters, Inc., one of the few truly successful Pixar features, and one of the few (Brad Bird's are others) to blend comedy with real feeling. The Good Dinosaur is instead cold and glum at its heart.
That's the title of a new book from Craig Yoe, collecting most of Walt Kelly's stories for Fairy Tale Parade, a comic book published by Dell from 1942 to 1946. Here is some of what I say about Kelly's fairy tales in my book Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books: "Kelly's stories ... combine charm with the emotional openness and immediate appeal that Walt Disney's animators sought and that was such a lively novelty in early comic books. ... Kelly did not mock the fairy tales he illustrated, but he found a great deal of fun in them. That was especially true in stories whose writing was recognizably his, wholly or in part, as when he embraced the comic possibilities in a giant with two quarrelsome heads."
Thanks to Craig Yoe, it's now possible for readers without large Kelly collections to gauge such comments against almost all of Kelly's Fairy Tale Parade stories, reproduced in color—as faithfully as possible, I have no doubt—from the original comic-book pages. The comic books themselves are the only source material available, the original art having been destroyed long ago, and the photographic negatives and plates almost certainly scrapped years before Western Publishing, which produced the comic books for Dell, left the comics field in the 1980s. Add in the substandard printing that afflicted many Dell comic books during World War II, and you have some idea of the challenge that Yoe faced. He has by this time, though, published many other books from similarly difficult sources, sources that are either in the public domain (like the Kelly stories) or "orphaned" (that is, someone may own the copyright, but no one can be sure who), and that experience is visible in the new Kelly book's pages.
Walt Kelly's Fairy Tale Parade, from IDW Publishing, is a beautiful product—the title page properly credits Clizia Gussoni for that aspect—with gilt-edged pages and a markedly luxurious feel. It's a triumph, and even Kelly collectors who have the comic books on their shelves, as I do, should buy a copy. There's a foreword by Dean Yeagle and an introduction by Yoe himself, both fine as far as they go, but, truthfully, you can learn a lot more about Kelly and his comic-book work by reading Funnybooks.
As much as I like Walt Kelly's Fairy Tales, I do have one quibble, and a complaint.
My quibble is that there's no mention of the Story Book Records, the sixteen 78 rpm sides each of which was devoted to a familiar children's story narrated by Kelly in a most distinctive manner (in Funnybooks, I write of "his broad, emphatic vocal acting that is an aural equivalent of his most boisterous comic-book stories"). Only a few of the Story Book stories are true fairy tales, but exactly the same is true of most of the stories in Walt Kelly's Fairy Tales. Like his fairy-tale burlesques of the 1950s, Kelly's high-powered spoken-word versions make for interesting comparisons with his Fairy Tale Parade stories.
My complaint goes to the omission from the book of the best story in Fairy Tale Parade No. 1, "Little Black Sambo." There's no doubting why that story was omitted; it's for the same reason that the book includes a paragraph on the copyright page disavowing "representations" in its seventy-year-old stories that have become unacceptable in our "more enlightened" culture. The use of American blacks as the human characters, rather than the Asian Indians of the original version, was presumably one such "representation," but those black characters speak standard English, not in dialect, and they are drawn without offensive distortions. Kelly drew many other stories that are open to complaint on racial grounds, but "Little Black Sambo" is not one of them. It can only be the title of the story, and its unfortunate associations, that led to its condemnation. Until someone has the courage to reprint "Little Black Sambo," you can read about it, and see one page from it, by turning to pages 62-65 of Funnybooks.
This is a golden time for admirers of the cartoonists at the heart of Funnybooks—Carl Barks, John Stanley, and, of course, Walt Kelly—because so much of their work has been reprinted or soon will be. Those reprints have varied greatly in quality, because reprinting comic-book pages successfully is so difficult, especially when the original printings are the only available source material. For example, I've seen only the first volume of Hermes Press' reprinting of Kelly's complete Dell Pogo comics, but—a binding error aside–the color in that book strikes me as too bright and harsh. Walt Kelly's Fairy Tales captures more successfully the sense of what the stories looked like in their original pulp-paper incarnations.
Phyllis and I went to London for ten days earlier this month to celebrate our wedding anniversary. It was our first visit to England since 2004, when I interviewed Richard Todd and other worthies for my Disney biography. We returned home this year just a few days after the terrorist attacks in Paris, and also, as it happened, just a few days after my 91-year-old father-in-law fell and broke his hip. A steady stream of translantic phone calls left no time to visit the British Museum or, more relevant from the vantage point of this website, to visit the Cartoon Museum or the Forbidden Planet bookstore. Maybe next time. For now, my father-in-law's health takes precedence.
That's not to say there's no time for other matters of consequence, like the lingering question of how and why Carl Barks's late-1950s stories were damaged by the inferior paper that Western Printing provided. We're closer to answers, thanks to Joakim Gunnarsson. You can read about this latest development by following this link to my page devoted to corrections and additions to my book Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books.
(Speaking of that book, it has just gone into a second printing by University of California Press. The new printing corrects errors I've identified in the first printing.)
Barks is my favorite cartoonist, and also a cultural figure whose name and work have become familiar enough that they can be cited in a wide variety of contexts with no need for a lot of apologies or explanations. The Fantagraphics reprints, which are looking better and seem to be selling well, to judge from the amazon.com rankings, are presumably contributing to that broad awareness of Barks and his work.
Patrick Garabedian sent me an editorial from the November 2 issue of Barron's, the weekly Dow Jones magazine, titled "Duckburg Economics." In warning of the danger of price controls, the editorial cites the lead stories from Uncle Scrooge No. 5 and No. 6, both published in 1954, and identifies Barks as their author. Those are the stories, you'll recall, in which the ducks visit two mythical lands, Atlantis and Tralla La. The editorial's author, Thomas G. Donlen, trusted too much to memory when writing about Tralla La—surely he owns Fantagraphics' Uncle Scrooge reprints!—but his summary is close enough.
Barks's best stories are endlessly rich, as I was reminded when for some reason my thoughts turned to the "Donald Duck" lead story in Walt Disney's Comics & Stories No. 109, October 1949. That issue was, as I wrote in 1982 in Carl Barks and the Art of the Comic Book, the first issue I received on the subscription to Walt Disney's Comics that was a ninth-birthday present. That "made it something special. Perhaps that was why I noticed that the ten-page Donald Duck story ... stood apart from the others.... I was very much aware of the specific California setting of the story, with, for example, its references to the Los Angeles aqueduct and desert hot springs."
The aqueduct enters the story because the nephews are trying to prove to Donald that their witching stick really can find water. When the stick tells the ducks to drill in the desert, they do so; Donald is trying to wean the nephews from their obsession, and he has attached what he calls a "power digger," one of Barks's wonderfully solid and authentic-looking tools, to the rear of his car. But when Donald does drill into water, it's by piercing the aqueduct.
As I failed to note in 1982, that was undoubtedly a criminal act when the story was published, but Donald's response is not to try to explain his mistake to someone in authority but to get away as quickly as possible ("We daren't go back to the highway! Cops will be swarming this way like flies!"). Not the honorable thing to do, obviously, but exactly what most people would do in those circumstances. And when Donald is finally persuaded of the stick's powers, he responds not by apologizing to the nephews for his skepticism, but by appropriating the stick for his own uses, and shutting the nephews out of his new business.
Would that story, with its unmistakable lapses in the behavior of its principal character, pass muster with today's moral guardians if it were being offered not to adult collectors but to children? I doubt it. But even though there's nothing particularly admirable in anything that Donald does, there's much more substance to him in this story, and in many others by Barks, than there is to any other comics character I could name. In a medium that has always been dominated by shallowness and falsity, Donald is that great rarity, a real person.
A representative page from the 48-page story that fills Zane Grey's Wilderness Trek, Dell Four Color Comic No. 333, 1951. Adapted by Gaylord DuDois, illustrated by Moe Gollub (who hated to letter, thus the unfortunate mechanical lettering in this and other stories).
Reading Gaylord DuBois
A few weeks ago, I posted an item asking that my visitors consider posting a favorable comment about one or another of my books on amazon.com, if they were so inclined. A number of people responded as I hoped, with substantial comments that showed they'd actually read the books. I particularly enjoyed Harry McCracken's comment about Funnybooks, not just because he liked the book but also because he disagreed with some of what I said in it: "I'm still not entirely clear on why he devoted as much space to a writer named Gaylord DuBois as he did, and I wished for a little more on Paul Murry than the one passing mention he got." I'm happy to have the opportunity, thanks to Harry, to revisit what I've written.
I have no regrets about giving so little attention to Murry, who was, like so many of his "funny animal" peers, a terribly limited cartoonist compared with Carl Barks (whose work Murry scorned). Murry relied on a set of stock poses and expressions, executed with an emphasis that partly concealed how ordinary they were. A direct comparison of the two cartoonists is possible, since Murry illustrated panel-by-panel copies of at least two Barks stories, including a 1960 version of "The Gilded Man" from Donald Duck Four Color No. 422, 1952. The comparison is not flattering to Murry.
It's a little more difficult for me to justify the attention I pay to DuBois—a full defense would require that I quote too much from the pages I devote to him in Funnybooks. For me, tracing DuBois's career was a way to understand what life was like for a comic-book writer in the 1940s, and, more than that, a way to distinguish the Dell line from its competitors. As I write near the start of a chapter I devote to DuBois, his scripts "set the tone for the whole Dell line, which was free of almost everything that was lurid and morbid and generally excessive in competitors' comic books. ... [B]ecause DuBois's scripts were more archetypally 'Dell' than anyone else's—because they established a baseline—they opened the way for other creators who preferred to work in the same vein. There was in the Dell comic books the opportunity to make much better stories than the comic-book industry usually permitted."
That's exactly right, I still think. Since I wrote Funnybooks, I've revisited a number of stories with DuBois scripts, and I've come away with my respect for his work enhanced. I like the stories in Gene Autry Comics that Jesse Marsh illustrated, and I realized when I read one of them recently that it fit perfectly my description of the DuBois stories in which "his characters calmly work through practical problems." And, sure enough, the listing of DuBois's work compiled from his own records shows that he wrote a few Gene Autry stories at just the right time. I like the DuBois scripts illustrated by Moe Gollub, too, such as those for the early issues of Lassie and some of the Zane Grey adaptations. The best of those stories, written and drawn almost seventy years ago, have what is for me an appealing nineteenth-century flavor: calm and ordered, script and drawings speaking together as if in a strong and measured voice. DuBois was, after all, born in 1899, when Queen Victoria was still on the throne.
Another prominent writer for Western Printing's comic books (excluding writer-cartoonists like Barks and John Stanley) was Paul S. Newman, who was twenty-five years DuBois's junior and began writing for Western about ten years after DuBois. Newman is best known, probably, for his scripts for The Lone Ranger and Turok Son of Stone and the Gold Key title Doctor Solar. He was prolific, and like DuBois, he documented his work. We know what Newman wrote; my problem was, when I was writing Funnybooks, that I couldn't identify anything he wrote that I found particularly interesting. I remember disliking The Lone Ranger, both the writing and Tom Gill's drawings, when I was buying all the Dell comics in the 1950s, but surveying the list of Newman's work now, I don't see anything that sticks out, either good or bad. Perhaps it was just that Newman's timing was unfortunate; he came aboard as it was becoming more and more difficult to write really good comic-book stories of the kind Western had been publishing.
I wound up not mentioning Newman at all in Funnybooks, and I didn't mention any number of other writers and artists whose work I don't dislike, exactly, but that I think offers too little to admire (Dan Spiegle comes immediately to mind). No one has challenged me on Newman's omission, or on other points that I thought might provoke discussion. Testimony, perhaps, to the clubbishness that prevails in comic books as in animation, and that weighs against serious efforts to separate the four-color wheat from the four-color chaff. (If Tony Strobl is, as I've read, a great cartoonist, what does that make Carl Barks?) So, thanks again to Harry McCracken for breaking the silence.
Garry Apgar, editor of A Mickey Mouse Reader and author of the forthcoming Mickey Mouse: Emblem of the American Spirit, has written this guest post on the Disney artist James Bodrero, the subject of multiple posts here in the last few months. Bodrero was a fascinating character, and as Garry has learned, his brother was a very interesting fellow in his own right.
As you said in your lead-in to Gray’s interview (posted in 2008),
Jim Bodrero differed considerably from most of the other people who worked at the Disney studio when he did (1938-1946). He was older—older than Walt Disney himself—and vastly more sophisticated and socially well connected.
Among his contributions to the production of Disney feature-length cartoons were character sketches and concept drawings like the pastel (above) for the “Pastoral Symphony” segment of Fantasia, auctioned by Howard Lowery in 2013 (hammer price: $1,560.00).
As you noted, too, in your intro to Gray’s Q&A, Cornelius “Corny” Cole, who worked for a while as an in-betweener on Lady and the Tramp,was Bodrero’s nephew by marriage. But Jim Bodrero had another, even closer family tie to Walt’s operation in the person of a younger brother named Alessandro.
An online death notice in the Los Angeles Times (December 18, 2002) states that Alessandro S. (“Vee”) Bodrero was born on May 1, 1909 in France, and died in Malibu on December 5, 2002. Jim, as you learned from his daughter, Lydia Hoy, was born in 1900 in Belgium.The Times notice also had this to say about Alessandro Bodrero:
Beloved husband for 65 years of the late Jean Strachan, who passed away in Oct. 2001, father of Alexa, John and Victoria, grandfather of three and uncle of seven. Vee was a pioneer air pilot in Southern California. He served as a lieutenant colonel in the Marines during WWII. After the war Vee worked as a cameraman in the film and TV industry beginning at Disney Studios in the early days, then Desilu and Paramount, and USO Tours with Bob Hope. Vee will be remembered with much love and affection by his family and friends. He was a uniquely talented individual, a great storyteller and a fine craftsman.
There is a short entry on Alessandro Bodrero on the Internet Movie Database website, although, like the Times obit, it makes no mention of Jim, which—if the two men were related—is odd . . . unless, perhaps, they or their families were estranged.
Another website, Wikitree, does, however, list a sister and two brothers for Jim Bodrero: Lydia, Gian, and Alessandro. In addition, records from Ellis Island indicate that a Catherine Bodrero, age 35, arrived in New York from England on April 11, 1910, aboard the SS Minnewaska with four children in tow: James (age nine), Lydia (eight), Gian Giacomo (three), and Alexander (eleven months). The mother, née Spalding, was an American citizen. She made the voyage having by then, presumably, separated from her spouse. In its March 31, 1939 edition, the Palm Beach Daily News reported that Catherine had divorced her Italian husband, Alessandro Boldero, “some years ago.”
I’ve found just one photograph of Vee Bodrero (apparently also nicknamed “Vitty”). The description of the image reproduced below right, in the collections of the Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif., identifies him as “assistant to Jim Algar in the making of the Disney motion picture 'Ten Who Dared'.” The snapshot, taken by J. Ballard Atherton in June 1959, is among the Papers of Otis R. Marston at the Huntington. Otis “Dock” Marston was a technical advisor on this live-action film produced by Algar, which premiered on October 18, 1960. Ten Who Dared may have been one of Vee Bodrero’s last assignments at Disney.
Precisely when Vee’s relationship with Disney ended is unclear, but it began far earlier than indicated by the Times death notice. He was hired on April 13, 1939, six months after brother Jim, who joined the studio on October 3, 1938. Prior to the war, Alessandro worked in the Camera Department (“Production Camera”). That might be him standing in the background of the George Hurrell publicity shot of Walt above left, taken in the early 1940s. Both figures have the same lean physique and the same longish shape and subtle tilt of the head.
Alessandro’s position in “Production Camera” is mentioned in a wedding announcement in the September 8, 1939 issue of the studio’s mimeographed in-house newsletter, The Bulletin (vol. 2, no. 10, p. 1):
Like his brother, Alessandro Bodrero was one of many fascinating people employed by Walt Disney over the years. There must still be much to discover about him.
For instance, the Findagrave website offers no indication regarding where he or his ashes may have been laid to rest. But it does give Vittorio as his middle name—as opposed to the middle initial “S” reported in the Times death notice, in Disney personnel records, and in military records as well—which might explain the origin of the nickname Vee. Findagrave.com, incidentally, also specifies Jim Bodrero’s birthplace in Belgium as Liège.
Regarding Vee’s military rank during World War II, the L.A. Times notice also got that wrong. He was never a Lieutenant Colonel. Nor was his wartime service his first stint in the Marines. According to official records, he first enlisted in the Corps in Los Angeles on January 7, 1935 and underwent recruit training in San Diego. He then served with Service Squadron 2M, Observation Squadron 8M, and Utility Squadron 2M. Presumably, these units were stationed at Camp Kearny in San Diego, future site of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.
Vee Bodrero was, it seems, discharged soon after December 1938, following a four-year tour of duty. The comment in the Times obit that he “was a pioneer air pilot in Southern California” may reflect an interest in aviation developed during his service at Camp Kearny. It also might indicate a passion for flight that predated and prompted his enlistment in the Marines in the first place.
According to Marine Corps documents, Vee re-enlisted in January 1943 (one year and one month after Pearl Harbor), with the rank of Staff Sergeant, and was sent to Quantico, Virginia, for officer training. The first issue of the in-house wartime studio publication Dispatch from Disney’s (1943) reported that he was stationed at Quantico in the Animation Unit of the Marine Corps Photographic Section. He subsequently served as an intelligence officer in Marine Bombing Squadron 611 (VMB-611), which reached the South West Pacific Theater of Operations in late October 1944 on board the SS Zoella Lykes. He is listed as “Boderero” on the unit’s website, with the rank of 1st Lieutenant.
In January 1946 Alessandro was a member of the Wing Service Squadron 1 in Tsingtao, China, By July 1946, he’d been assigned to the 11th Reserve District in San Diego, where—still a 1st Lieutenant—his active duty came to an end. As recorded in the Register of Retired Commissioned and Warrant Officers, Regular and Reserve, of the United States Navy and Marine Corps (Bureau of Naval Personnel, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1960), upon his retirement from the Marine Corps Reserve in 1959, the rank of Captain was the highest grade he attained during his career.
Ironically, roughly three years after Vee left the “rapidly thinning ranks of the studio’s” bachelor corps and, in 1943, rejoined the ranks of the United States Marine Corps, he found himself almost literally at war with his father and namesake. Alessandro Bodrero the elder—who bore the honorific title of Commendatore—was an army general and high-level diplomat in the service of Hitler’s chief European ally. In the words of historian Luca de Caprariis, Generale Bodrero (1865-1953) had once been “Mussolini’s personal emissary to King Alexander of Yugoslavia and from 1924 to 1928 Minister in Belgrade, was one of the few hard-liners” in the Italian diplomatic service. In 1939 the Palm Beach Daily News reported that Bodrero held “an important position in Ethiopia,” which Italy had occupied in 1936.
The Camera Department at Disney spawned at least one other Marine Corps officer during the war. On September 22, 1942, Walt signed a “To Whom It May Concern” letter on behalf of Clyde W. Batchelder, in support of his application for a commission in the Marines (he eventually rose to the rank of Lt. Colonel). In Walt’s letter, he stated that Batchelder had “been with our organization since June, 1934,” and gave his current position “as head of our Camera Department.” If the man standing behind Disney in that George Hurrell photo is not Vee Bodrero it might be Clyde Batchelder.
I am grateful to the following individuals for their help in establishing many key facts in this post about Bodrero’s career in the Marine Corps and at Disney: Dr. Luca de Caprariis, Professor of Modern European History, John Cabot University, Rome, Italy; David Lesjak, author of Service with Character: The Disney Studios and World War II (Theme Park Press, 2014); LtCol Dennis “Lloyd” Hager II, USMC; and Annette Amerman, Branch Head, Historical Inquiries and Research Branch, Marine Corps History Division, Quantico, Va.
I was in Chicago for a few days last week, on a trip that had no animation/comics connections at all—until, that is, I was walking up North Clark Street, a few blocks south of the Newberry Library, and this sign jumped out at me. Not a bad hotel, either, to judge from the Trip Advisor reviews.
Geoff Blum, Michael Hodous, and I have just concluded a wonderfully geeky email conversation about Carl Barks's late-1950s work, specifically when and how his drawings showed the effects of the clay-coated paper about which Carl complained on multiple occasions. You can go directly to my post about our exchange, on my errata page for Funnybooks, by clicking on this link for page 326.
I'm very pleased with that errata page in general, not just because it has given me the opportunity to correct my mistakes (very few of them so far, I'm happy to say) but also because it has provided a venue for additional information about the comic books and creators that interest me most.
And speaking of Barks, it has been a while since I recommended the Carl Barks Fan Club Pictorial, published by Joseph and Barbara Cowles, Barks fans of very long standing. The CBFCP has reached its eighth issue (plus a separate "potpourri" compilation of material from a predecessor newsletter), all available through amazon.com. These are beautifully produced books, and if you're a Barks fan and not familiar with the series, you owe it to yourself to sample at least one issue.
Contrary to my expectations, I did wind up watching most of the first part of PBS' two-part American Experience extravaganza on Walt Disney—at my wife's insistence, since I make two very brief appearances in it. As I first feared and then expected, it was awful. Sloppy, distorted, inaccurate—all of those adjectives could be called into play, with no fear of contradiction from me. Some aspects of the show, like Ron Suskind's prominent role, were simply bizarre. An occasional bright spot, like a bit of unfamiliar archival film, could not come close to making up for the show's shortcomings. I didn't see the last two hours, which may have been a little better. For full evaluations of the show by writers more knowledgeable about Walt Disney, and sympathetic to him, than American Experience's producers, I can recommend posts by Jim Korkis and Todd Pierce. [An October 21, 2015, update: I overlooked an excellent commentary on the PBS show by Floyd Norman, the veteran Disney animator and writer. It's on his blog, at this link.]
I sat for another TV interview ten days ago, in New York—I flew up for the day from Washington, where Phyllis and I were house-sitting for our former next-door neighbors—and I thought it went better than my PBS ordeal. (For one thing, my stomach was much more cooperative.) But as with PBS, I came away thinking that most and maybe all of what I said was destined for the trash.
When I was conducting interviews myself, hundreds of them, for my books and Nation's Business magazine, I always tried to prepare thoroughly, so that I had a lot of questions in mind, and I tried to make the tape recorder as inconspicuous as possible during the interview (I've never interviewed anyone on camera). A good interview, to my mind, was like an extended conversation whose shape was not foreordained, and that just happened to yield words suitable for publication. In my experience, TV people usually approach interviews very differently: they come into an interview with a story line already firmly established, so that your job, if you're the person being interviewed, becomes to provide pithy comments that will amplify what the producers think they already know. Add the bright lights and cables and technicians that TV requires, and when you're being interviewed you can feel like a gangster getting the third degree in an old movie. It's all a matter of money, of course; those machines and those people cost a lot of it, so for a TV producer minimizing uncertainty easily trumps coddling superannuated authors.
TV interviews are made to order for someone like Neal Gabler, who is adept at spotting opportunities to serve up pungent morsels about, say, the darkness in Walt Disney's soul. If, however, in responding to questions you tend to address directly what you think are misconceptions or inaccuracies, you create problems for the producers that they are likely to resolve by eliminating you from the show. In my latest interview, I was so impolitic as to suggest, among other things, that Elias Disney was not an ogre, that the Disney studio was not in financial distress in the 1930s, and that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was not a daring gamble that many people believed would fail.
On the latter point, the interviewer rather triumphantly pointed out that Walt and Roy had put up their library of cartoons as collateral when they borrowed hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Bank of America to finish Snow White. Didn't that prove something? I was too flummoxed by the question to answer adequately, but of course that transaction proved, if anything, that the bank had a lot of confidence in Walt and in the value of his cartoons, the older shorts and the new feature alike. And there was certainly nothing strange about a bank's wanting collateral for a large loan.
I'll hope for the best from the new show (whose particulars may not have been announced yet, so I won't announce them here). What I won't expect is to see or hear much of myself.
That misbegotten PBS show "Walt Disney" has on its website a list of "related books and websites." It's a rather peculiar list that includes only one book by John Canemaker (and that one not directly concerned with Disney) and only one by J.B. Kaufman. My first thought when I skimmed the list was that "authorized" books like Canemaker's Two Guys Named Joe (2010) and Kaufman's South of the Border with Disney (2009) had been excluded because of their Disney affiliation, but that's not the case. The list includes a number of such books, some of them manifestly inferior to excluded Canemaker and Kaufman titles. So who knows what eccentric or peevish principles of selection were at work.
I wrote a few years ago, in a review I titled "The Approved Narrative," about the constraints under which the authors of Disney-authorized (and, increasingly, Disney-published) books now operate, and about how a few authors, Canemaker and Kaufman chief among them, have managed to produce estimable work despite those constraints—and, it must be added, despite limited interest among most reviewers and book buyers outside the claustrophobic world of Disney fans. It's no wonder that so many official Disney books simply recycle the same facts and illustrations that previous authors have used, and it's a cause for rejoicing when a few authors break free of those constraints,discovering and publishing neglected artwork and performing original research that refreshes our awareness of what we may have thought was overly familiar. It's wonderful to be reminded of just how extraordinary Walt Disney's studio was in its heyday.
Three new (or in one case, recent) books deserve extended reviews that I can't give them yet—I've been spending too much time doing other things, like preparing interviews for publication here—but that's no reason not to buy them as quickly as you can. Thanks to their authors' credentials and the richness of their illustrations, all these books are self-recommending.
At the top of my list is Didier Ghez's They Drew as They Pleased: The Hidden Art of Disney's Golden Age (Chronicle), a gorgeous book that reproduces hundreds of pieces of concept art from the 1930s by Albert Hurter, Gustaf Tenggren, Ferdinand Horvath, and Bianca Majolie. I've done no more yet than skim the text, but Didier's record for comprehensiveness and accuracy, established beyond cavil in Disney's Grand Tour (2014), his account of Walt and Roy's 1935 visit to Europe, appears to be completely intact. The interesting question is how his new book measures up against Canemaker's Before the Animation Begins (1996), which covers much of the same ground, and I can't answer that with any confidence yet. My best guess is that anyone with a serious interest in the Disney studio's history will want both books, and will be very satisfied with both purchases.
My one reservation, which I've voiced about some of Canemaker's books, is that I'm not sure a biographical approach is always the most productive when dealing with a collaborative medium like animation. But I'm open to persuasion, and looking forward to spending much more time with Didier's book than I've been able to so far.
J.B. Kaufman's Pinocchio: The Making of the Disney Epic (Walt Disney Family Foundation) is devoted not to a group of artists, but to a single film, as with his The Fairest One of All: The Making of Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (2012). Like the earlier book, Pinocchio is richly illustrated, but considering how much artwork from Pinocchio has already seen print, the greatest weight of interest falls necessarily on the text. I read the book in manuscript a few years ago and found very little to complain about. In Pinocchio, as always, Kaufman is a researcher non pareil, piecing together the story of the film's making from countless bits of information in the Walt Disney Archives, Disney's Animation Research Library, and many other sources. A more complete and accurate account of Pinocchio's production is impossible to imagine.
My reservations go less to Kaufman's performance than to the film itself. As I've argued in my own Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, Pinocchio is problematic in a number of crucial areas, especially in its handling of the title character. Unless Kaufman revised his manuscript after I read it—and I don't think he made any significant changes—he didn't address any of my concerns. That's his author's prerogative, and the book remains excellent on its own terms. I can't help but regret, though, that it was published not by an "outside" company, like Chronicle Books, the publisher of Didier Ghez's book, but by the publishing arm of the Walt Disney Family Foundation. That affiliation has probably ruled out very much serious attention outside the Disney biosphere.
Now we need a full-scale examination of Fantasia, preferably by John Canemaker. That's not to say Kaufman wouldn't do an excellent job, only that Canemaker's devotion to the film, and his own strengths as a researcher and author, make him the ideal choice to write a Fantasia book that would supplant John Culhane's unsatisfactory effort from 1988. In the meantime, I still need to finish reading Canemaker's most recent and possibly most important book, The Lost Notebook: Herman Schultheis and the Secrets of Walt Disney's Movie Magic (2014). With any luck, I'll have all three of these important new books read and reviewed within the next few months.
Not that I think that anyone is waiting desperately to learn what I think of them. Anyone besides me, that is. I often don't know what I think about a book or a film until I've reduced my thoughts to words, and that will certainly be the case here. I'm looking forward to reading my own reviews.
I met Jay Ward twice, both times at the Ward studio on Sunset Boulevard. Both times, I was there to interview Lew Keller, and the studio was, as best I recall, empty except for Jay and Lew. (Jay's wife Billie was still
running Dudley Do-Right's Emporium, which sold licensed merchandise with the Ward characters next door.) The first meeting was in December 1986, and I remember Jay coming into the room where Lew and I were sitting, seeing that an interview was in progress, and beating a very hasty retreat. He was highly allergic to interviews, even, I suppose, other people's.
That interview with Lew Keller, about his studio work before he went with Ward, was a disaster. Electrical interference of some kind filled most of the tape. I got together with Lew again two and a half years later, in 1989, again at the Ward studio, although we adjourned to a coffee shop across the street to reduce the risk of electrical problems. I spoke with Jay again, this time making of a point of saying to him, as I stuck my head in his office, that I'd seen Lloyd Turner in Oregon just a couple of weeks before. This time, Jay smiled and didn't bolt from his desk, and we talked briefly about Turner, whom we both liked very much, before I returned to Lew.
I thought about those visits to the Ward studio when I first saw Darrell Van Citters' beautiful book, The Art of Jay Ward Productions (Oxberry Press, 2013). That book is filled with model sheets and other drawings that I'm sure I saw as yellowed photocopies on the studio's walls. As Darrell says, those drawings are greatly superior to what wound up on the screen, after the cartoons were animated in Mexico. I think I'd say that thanks to those model sheets and such, Darrell's book is not just more pleasing to look at than the cartoons, but funnier, too. I loved the Ward cartoons when both they and I were new, decades ago, but when I've seen them again more recently, I've been disappointed.
Probably they're a little disappointed in me, too.
If you haven't shared my disappointment, you should seek out this excellent book, and, while you're at it, Keith Scott's classic history of the Ward studio, The Moose That Roared (2001). I haven't lined up the two books for close comparison of their accounts of Ward history—I'm just not that interested in the Ward cartoons—but I'm pretty sure they're complementary. Anyone who enjoys the Ward cartoons as much as I used to should probably have both.
I've never wanted to beg for favorable reviews on amazon.com, but saddled as I am with publishers who recoil at the thought of promoting or selling my books, I don't think I have much choice. (As one example, The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney has been "temporarily out of stock" for weeks, coincidentally since just about the time I alerted my editor that I would make a cameo appearance on PBS's "Walt Disney.")
So, if you've enjoyed Funnybooks or The Animated Man or Hollywood Cartoons, and you feel the urge to tell the world about it through a comment on amazon, please do so. I would truly appreciate it.
That's all for the next few weeks. See you in early October, probably.
Here's a link to a review I think you can trust. Thank you, G. Michael Dobbs, for giving me back the four hours of my life I might otherwise have spent watching this blighted documentary. Ken Burns, where were you when we needed you?
I'm sure everyone who visits this site is aware by now that PBS' American Experience will devote four hours to a biography of Walt Disney, spread across two nights, September 14 and 15. I was interviewed for the show, which is titled simply "Walt Disney," early last year in Boston. I haven't seen "Walt Disney," but the producers say that I'll be in the September 14 installment—very briefly, I gather, from what I've been told by a person who has seen the whole thing. I was unwell the morning I was interviewed, thanks to something I ate the previous evening, and if the recorded interview betrayed my unease, that would have been reason enough to minimize my contribution.
Other considerations may also have been at work. The promotional clips that have turned up on Facebook and American Experience's website, totaling perhaps twenty minutes so far—that is, a fair sampling of the whole show, especially since the idea must have been to make it seem as attractive as possible—have been disappointing, to say the least. My fellow interviewees seem to have included a surfeit of fatuous academics, including at least one Marxist crank. It was understandably hard, almost fifty years after Walt's death, to round up a few people who knew him personally, but, rather than rely on archival footage of important Disney employees and friends, the show offers new interviews not just with reliable sources like Floyd Norman and Richard Sherman but also with the barely marginal, like Ruthie Tompson and Bob Givens.
To judge from the clips, "Walt Disney" will also serve up more than enough Neal Gabler and his factitious view that Walt was a strange man with "darkness" at his core. Gabler is a skilled TV performer, chipper as a chipmunk—he has put to good use his experience as the liberal punching bag on a Fox News show—and it's no wonder that the American Experience people found him an attractive interview subject. It's too bad that so much of what he writes and says is simply wrong.
I don't remember in any detail what I said in my own interview, but I can't imagine that it fit very snugly with what people like Gabler had to say. I'm sure, for one thing, that I rejected the popular view that Walt's father, Elias, was a brutal ogre. That may be one big reason I wound up on the cutting-room floor. No doubt I departed from orthodoxy in other ways.
I'll record both installments of "Walt Disney," but as it happens I have conflicts that will prevent me from watching "live." Phyllis and I will leave for our old home town of Alexandria, Virginia, on September 16, and we won't be home for much of the following few weeks, so I have no idea when I'll see "Walt Disney," or if I'll see the show at all. I've watched myself on TV before, so that's no lure—quite the opposite—and certainly I can't get excited about seeing more of Gabler. Not watching the show is more attractive the more I think about it.
The American Experience website speaks of gaining "unprecedented access to the Disney archives," and the show's executive producer, Mark Samels, says that PBS insisted on, and got, complete editorial control. I thought all that sounded familiar, and sure enough, when I pulled Gabler's Walt Disney off the shelf, I found claims of exactly the same sort. "Gabler is the first writer to be given complete access to the Disney archives," the dust jacket announces, and in his acknowledgments Gabler thanks the Disney executive Howard Green for sparing him from having "to submit the manuscript to the studio for approval. ... I did not seek nor did I receive a company imprimatur." In both cases, as we know for certain with Gabler's book and as seems likely with the PBS show, this hands-off posture effectively endorsed a badly distorted portrait of Walt.
That's not to say that either Gabler or PBS should have been locked out of those fabled Disney archives, only that other independent writers and filmmakers should have been allowed in, as I was back in the 1990s. There's something odd about a situation in which people like Gabler and the PBS producers—that is, people with an entirely predictable skepticism about Walt Disney and his creations—are welcomed into the company's treasure rooms, while people who have written sympathetically and accurately about Walt are regarded with suspicion and hostility, and made to pay handsomely for what little help they get. One might almost think that the current Disney management is happy to see Walt denigrated by respectable sources like PBS, because such criticism discourages invidious comparisons with his successors. A sad thought, but draw your own conclusions.
Nine years ago, I posted ten pages of drafts—the scene-by-scene records of who animated what—for cartoon portions of the Disney feature Song of the South, with a promise to post more later. I wondered at the time how much interest there was in such things, although my own interest has always been high. Back in the 1990s, I waded through many hundreds of draft pages at the Disney Archives, before outside researchers were banned, and I've always found drafts highly illuminating, not just about who animated what but about how cartoon producers and directors marshaled their talent.
My skepticism about other people's level of interest in drafts seemed to be justified by the silence that greeted my publication of the Song of the South drafts, but in the last few years I've had a trickle of inquiries about when I'd post more of the drafts, and other people have posted other drafts on their own websites, attracting at least a modest response. Hans Perk has been far and away the most prolific, posting many Disney drafts, and Devon Baxter, at Jerry Beck's Cartoon Research site, has been posting drafts for short cartoons from many differerent studios and directors, most recently—and most intriguingly—the draft for The Night Watchman, the first cartoon Chuck Jones directed at the Schlesinger studio.
I've had some other demands on my time recently, and so I'm indebted to Garry Apgar for researching and writing the following item, a sequel to my own August 6 post about Jim Bodrero's work as an illustrator.There's a good book waiting to be written (and heavily illustrated) about the animation people who illustrated books in the early years of the twentieth century. Grim Natwick comes instantly to mind, and there were others.
Long Ride to Granada (1965) was not the only book involving horses illustrated by James S. Bodrero. In 1927 he provided artwork for the second edition of the memoirs of one Major Horace Bell, first published in Los Angeles in 1881. Bell (1830-1918), a colorful figure in California history, came west during the Gold Rush in 1850. His Reminiscences of a Ranger or Early Times in Southern California was dedicated to “the few surviving members of the Los Angeles Rangers, and the memory of those who have answered to the last roll-call.”
I can find no images online from the edition illustrated by Bodrero, but here are the cover and title page of the 1881 edition at the Bancroft Library, Berkeley:
For a readable copy of the 1881 edition in the Stanford library, click here.
Also in 1927, Bodrero contributed woodcut illustrations to a second Old West-themed book, The Treasure Chest of the Medranos, by Elizabeth Howard Atkins, first published in the monthly children’s magazine, St. Nicholas, in serial form (Dec. 1919–March 1920), with drawings by W. M. Berger. The volume Bodrero illustrated was published in Santa Barbara by Wallace Hebberd. The vignette below was embossed into the cover, beneath the dust jacket reproduced below right. It’s not hard to imagine Walt Disney, the future builder of Frontierland, and a man with a certain affinity for horses as well, finding this sort of thing fascinating.
This CD-ROM, Walt Disney: An Intimate History of the Man and His Magic, was published in 1998, for Windows 95 computers. Try installing and playing it on a Windows 7 computer, as I did this week, and you will quickly find yourself up against compatibility obtacles. I bought the CD-ROM new and used it fitfully for a few years, but it may have been ten years since I last took it out of the case. When I tried to install it on my current computer, Windows 7 was not in the least cooperative, even when I turned to the troubleshooting tools that are supposed to let you bridge the enormous gaps that the speed of technological change opens up.
So: has anyone else encountered this problem and found a solution? It's not that this CD-ROM is an indispensable document, or at least not so far as I can recall, but there is stuff on it that I'd like to revisit for one reason or another.
[A September 4, 2015, update. Despite the generous assistance and best efforts of Thad Komorowski and Hans Perk, I haven't been able to come close to replicating how the CD-ROM originally functioned, and I can't persuade myself that it's worth the trouble to keep pushing ahead. Thanks to Thad, I have been able to listen to some of the audio, including an introduction by Diane Disney Miller, recorded almost twenty years ago, in which she speculates that her father would have loved the new computer technology—but maybe not, I feel obliged to add, if he'd known that the fruits of that technology, like his daughter's CD-ROM, would so quickly become obsolete.]
When I learned of John Culhane's death last month, I pulled out my file of correspondence with John to refresh my memory of just how much, or how little, we had been in touch. Our correspondence lasted only about a year; John initiated it in the fall of 1970, when as a Newsweek editor he asked me for help with a cover story on nostalgia, timed for Christmas. I lent him a great pile of stuff, including the complete run of Funnyworld and a number of other fan magazines. (This was, remember, long before the internet and email and other much easier ways to share information.) John ended our correspondence a year later by not replying to the letters I'd sent after I last heard from him.
John was aware by then of the hostile response, from Chuck Jones especially, to Funnyworld Nos. 12 and 13, and even though he'd praised the magazine highly, I've always thought it likely that he decided he couldn't afford to be seen in my company.
But, in the meantime, I received a few lively, funny letters like the one I've reproduced here (and that I published in part in Funnyworld No. 14). His optimism about Disney's misbegotten Robin Hood is easy for me to forgive; when I got his letter, I had just published in Funnyworld No. 13 my admiring piece about (gulp!) The Aristocats.
When I re-read John's letters, I realized that I'd not seen any mention in the obituaries of the major project that was occupying his attention in 1971. That was the book he refers to as "the history" in this letter, and that was eventually announced as Magic Mirror: The First World History of the Animated Film. That ambitiously titled book was real enough that I got a request from the book's packager in 1972, eight months after I last heard from John, to approve the use of an illustration I'd published in Funnyworld. I agreed, although not very graciously, since I was irked by what I regarded as John's snub.
There was no question then of our being in any sense competitors, since it was not until the spring of 1973 that I signed a contract with Oxford University Press to write the book that was published decades later as Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age. I'd already sent John transcripts of some of my interviews for his use in writing his own book.
In 1974, when I'd heard nothing more about Magic Mirror, I wrote to the publisher, Viking Press. I was told: "The book is in preparation but has not yet been scheduled." The book was still "upcoming" in February 1975, when Daily Variety mentioned it in a story announcing that John had been signed to write a feature film called The New Little Rascals. But that was the end, for reasons that have never been clear.
John turned up in Washington, D.C., a few times after Phyllis and I moved there in 1975; he was the host at events like a Kennedy Center tribute to his cousin Shamus. But I didn't meet John in person until 1978, at a black-tie dinner celebrating the opening of the Library of Congress' exhibit on Disney animation, "Building a Better Mouse." I'm sure we exchanged pleasantries, but I don't recall a word of our conversation.
I was the exhibit's curator, and John was there as—what? A representative of Walt Disney Productions, I think, but his exact relationship with Disney was puzzling to me then, and has remained so. He wasn't a full-time Disney employee, or so I assume, since I'd see references to other jobs he held, like those low-paying adjunct professorships that are a curse of the academic world. But he always seemed to be available when Disney needed an MC or a cheerleader at a Disney-sponsored, animation-related event.
Cartoon Brew recently posted video footage from one such occasion, when John accompanied several Disney employees (Woolie Reitherman, John Lasseter, Tom Wilhite) on a tour of forty campuses that was intended to drum up interest in Disney animation among presumably skeptical college kids. (I attended the session at George Washington University on April 10, 1981.) John wrote for the New York Times, freelance pieces on Disney subjects that I don't think ever acknowledged his close connection with corporate Disney. He wrote a few books, too, also on Disney subjects, but nothing remotely as ambitious as his abandoned history. When Abrams published his book on Fantasia, my first thought when I read it was to regret that John Canemaker hadn't written it.
I doubt very much that Canemaker would have let slip into print such absurdities as the notion that Walt Disney tailored his version of "The Rite of Spring" to anticipate objections from religious fundamentalists.
It was John Culhane's enthusiasm for Disney animation, and especially for the work of the Nine Old Men, and not his scrupulousness as a historian, that recommended him to the company for the roles he played. That enthusiasm was undoubtedly genuine, but in later years it got to seem a little, well, stylized.
The verbosity increased, as did the extravagance of his claims, especially on Walt's behalf. I suspect Magic Mirror, had it ever been completed, would have suffered from some of the same defects, but that doesn't mean John didn't have the makings of a good book at his disposal. When still in his teens, he spent an afternoon with Walt Disney at his home; he knew Bill Tytla and the Nine Old Men and many other famous animation people, possibly better than any other writer. Just how well he knew them, we could have learned if he had set out to write not a history, but a memoir as funny and vital as his letters.
Of the many first-person accounts by veterans of Hollywood animation's "golden age," especially at the Disney studio, few have what I'd call a distinctly personal flavor. It's most common for such books to present themselves as histories, or as objective how-to manuals. Everything interesting about Shamus Culhane's Talking Animals and Other People is autobiographical, but it's cloaked in borrowed historical garb, no doubt because either author or publisher thought that a straightforward memoir would not sell (and they may have been right). A few first-person accounts, like Chuck Jones's Chuck Amuck, are personal but hopelessly self-serving.
One striking exception to the general lack of personality is James Bodrero's Long Ride to Granada (Reynal, 1965), which I read for the first time recently. It's out of print, but easily located online. I've never been much interested in travel literature—I've read nothing by the likes of Patrick Leigh Fermor—but I found Bodrero's book charming, and that's not because his account of a small group's horseback ride across southern Spain has any Disney content. It has none, unless you include a note on the book jacket acknowledging that he worked for Disney for eight years, from 1938 to 1946, on such films as Fantasia and Saludos Amigos.
Bodrero was a member of Joe Grant's model department, and you can find his pastel sketches for such segments as the Pastoral Symphony in books like Finch's Art of Walt Disney and Canemaker's Paper Dreams. Lovely stuff, but nightmarishly difficult, seventy years ago, to translate into animated films. It was drawings like Bodrero's that Frank Thomas had in mind when he complained that the artists in the model department "could sit and whistle and make a pretty little thing without much effort" while the Disney animators struggled to meet Walt's increasingly severe demands. Long Ride offers perhaps two dozen Bodrero ilustrations—I haven't counted them—but in brush and ink.
There is in Bodrero's book, by way of compensation for the lack of studio anecdotes, a strong sense of what he was like. He was cosmopolitan, born in Belgium to an American mother and a father who was a career officer in the Italian army. As a boy he attended boarding schools in Europe and spent summers in Hawaii on his maternal grandparents' sugar plantation. His first wife, Eleanor, was the granddaughter of Cornelius Cole, a U.S. senator from California (the animator Corny Cole was Bodrero's nephew by marriage). Bodrero's background was patrician; what defined him was not so much money as ease in moving among people with wealth and social standing. He was "a very suave guy," as Homer Brightman put it, who knew and socialized with very famous people.
"Suave" fits Long Ride to Granada, not least because there are so few traces in it of the dictatorship that still ruled Spain, until Francisco Franco died in 1975. Policemen show up on the trail a couple of times, checking identity papers, and Bodrero remarks on a village's destruction during the war, but for the most part he depicts rural Andalusia as a tranquil land, populated by happy peasants. And maybe it was, in 1965, although it's in the nature of dictatorships to enforce tranquility and happiness. There is in Bodrero's book the sense that he and his comrades traveled in a sort of bubble, insulated to a large extent from everyday Spain by nationality, social position, and, of course, money. At the time the book was published, according to the jacket copy, Bodrero and his second wife, Geraldine (he remarried after Eleanor's death), spent half the year in San Francisco, and the other half on their farm on the Costa del Sol.
So, it may be impossible to read Long Ride without suppressing a little skepticism; but if, like me, you've aways enjoyed the company of old Disney hands, Bodrero's book is now the best way to get to know him. I'm glad to have made his acquaintance.
Milt Gray's interview with Bodrero about his work at Disney, recorded as part of my research for Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, is at this link.
Wilfred Jackson (center) confers with the animator Bill Tytla (left) and the musician Frank Churchill on the timing of animation for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in this 1937 photo. Courtesy of Wilfred Jackson.
Interviews: Wilfred Jackson (1973)
I interviewed Wilfred Jackson, one of Walt Disney's most important directors, at length on two occasions, in 1973 and 1976. The first of those two interviews is at this link. The second interview will follow after I've recuperated from this one. Transcribing interviews—I transcribed both of these decades ago—is no fun, but scanning the typescripts and preparing them for publication is even less fun, if possible. The interviews themselves are the saving grace, especially in this case. Jackson was a wonderful interview subject (and a wonderful correspondent, to boot), as I think you'll agree after reading this interview.
Late in the interview you'll find five photos of Jackson in poses used by Bill Tytla in his animation of the demon in "Night on Bald Mountain." Ideally, I'd have matched those poses with frame grabs from Fantasia, but I didn't, for reasons suggested in the previous paragraph. If anyone else wants to take a stab at it, please be my guest.
[An August 1, 2015, update: My nefarious scheme has worked, and Mark Mayerson has already accepted my challenge. You can go directly to his frame grabs by clicking on this link.]
James Stanley, son of the masterful writer of the Little Lulu comic book, accepted on the late John Stanley's behalf the Bill Finger award, given each year at Comic-Con to two outstanding comic-book writers, one living and one deceased. To Jim Stanley's right is Mark Evanier, himself a prolific writer for comics and animation, who presented the awards.
Phyllis and I returned a few days ago from a driving trip of more than two weeks on the West Coast, from north of Seattle to San Diego. Our original motive for the trip had no comics/animation
content. We wanted to see an old friend who was seriously ill, at his home near Seattle, although, sadly,
as things worked out we visited his widow instead of him. But as we headed south, bypassing both San Francisco and Los Angeles, reminders of my twin obsessions kept popping up.
That first happened at Seattle Center, where we visited the EMP Museum, founded by Paul Allen, Bill Gates' original partner in Microsoft. EMP—the initials originally stood for Experience Music Project—is a rock-and-roll museum in a Frank Gehry-designed building that evokes a guitar; it's a bit ho-hum, perhaps, if you've seen the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. The real attraction for me was a traveling Smithsonian Institution exhibit, "What's Up, Doc? The Animation Art of Chuck Jones."
It's a classy, well-organized exhibit, with dozens of pieces of original art and twenty-three full-length cartoons screening, some of them as wall projections in a dark room where you can actually watch them in reasonable comfort.
The cartoons are mostly wonderful, of course, and if there's any reason to hedge on a full-blown endorsement, it's because the exhibit is so emphatically a Chuck Jones exhibit, a one-man show with barely perceptible nods to his colleagues and collaborators. Only Maurice Noble gets more than minimal attention, and some important people, like Carl Stalling, get little or none. Most astonishing, unless I read right over it, there is no mention of Mel Blanc at all.
That the exhibit should be skewed so much toward Chuck himself was inevitable, probably; the credits for the exhibition are heavy with Jones-related people and organizations, in addition to the inevitable Warner Bros. contingent. (I'm on the list, too, because I provided a couple of photos.)
At Ashland, Oregon, we saw two excellent performances (of Guys and Dolls and Much Ado About Nothing) by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and then headed to Sacramento,
where the highlight was the wonderful California State Railroad Museum. Disney associations were easy to find there, of course—I particularly enjoyed coming across a locomotive that Walt and Ward Kimball undoubtedly saw at the 1948 railroad fair in Chicago—but I thought of Carl Barks, too, when I saw a refrigerator car of the kind he repaired at Roseville, California, in the 1920s, when he was a manual laborer trying to establish himself as a cartoonist.
After making our way south on the superlatively scenic coastal highway, Route 1, we spent several days in Santa Barbara. It was there that we saw our only movie of the trip, Pixar's Inside Out. I was struck by how flat the film seemed for the first twenty minutes or so, with no audible response from the audience to anything on the screen. Pixar knows how to take up the slack in its stories with expert tugs on the heartstrings, though, and such was the case here. I can't remember now exactly at which points the film pushed my buttons and undoubtedly those of almost everyone else in the audience, but I'm sure appeals to family feeling were involved (I do remember the shameless plea on the end titles that the filmmakers' children not grow up).
Still, I couldn't get past the film's governing conceit, that the personified emotions inside eleven-year-old Riley's head were somehow distinct from Riley herself. Who, or what, is Riley, if the emotions governing her life are not central to her being? To descend to a lower metaphysical plane, or maybe just call the story's craftsmanship into question, it seems to me that Inside Out's personified emotions, to be credible as such, would have to be one-dimensional—that is, nothing but fearful or angry or whatever—whereas most of them are not. Joy is so much more than joyful, especially as voiced by Amy Poehler, that she's really the story's protagonist, with a much broader emotional range than Riley herself. The girl is little more than a puppet, a sort of latterday Pinocchio, perhaps, if I might invoke another problematic Disney feature.
We drove from Santa Barbara to La Jolla by way of Claremont, where I made a brief visit to the Scripps College Library to skim the papers of Phil Dike, the artist who acted as a screener of talent, among other things, at the Disney studio in the 1930s. From our base in La Jolla (the closest lodgings we could find to the San Diego Convention Center), we drove into San Diego on two days to visit the 2015 edition of Comic-Con International. I can think of no better way to describe my response to it than to quote from A. O. Scott's excellent piece about the con in the New York Times:
A critic at Comic-Con International feels less like a fish out of water than like an excluded middleman. The local currency is not skepticism but enthusiasm, and though there is plenty of room in the cavernous halls of the convention center for disappointment and disagreement, irony is thoroughly banished. “Thank you all for being so amazing,” a woman said to a panel of television actors during a Q. and A. session, and the questions usually rise to about that level of toughness. The crowds gather under the signs of sincerity and celebration. Who needs critics to spoil the fun? Why would you walk through the Southern California summer sun in armor and body paint, or roast slowly on the grass while waiting to see a movie trailer, unless you really meant it?
Comic-Con is an event where tens of thousands of people spend millions of dollars to stand in line for hours or even days, not to see a performance, but to be exhorted to spend yet more money to enrich the manufacturers of shallow, high-gloss entertainments. Anyone who asks himself, "Why am I doing this?" has come to the wrong place.
If when you read the previous paragraph the word "Disney" popped into your mind, that would be an entirely reasonable response. Disney was, however, not as visible at Comic-Con as I might have expected, and perhaps that was because it has since 2009 been staging what I take to be its own version of the con, called D23 Expo, every other year at the Anaheim Convention Center. (D23, also launched in 2009, is the official Disney fan club.) This year's Expo will take place August 14-16.
The pattern is the same as at San Diego: Disney fans, all certifiably irony-free, will pay $74 a day, or $216 for all three days, to get juiced up about forthcoming Disney films, most of them live-action remakes of animated features or new installments in Robert Iger's beloved franchises. Of the scheduled presentations, my favorite is this one: "Pixar Secrets Revealed! Hear the Stories They Didn't Want You to Know!" Reading that, I immediately pictured John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and Pete Docter fighting their way past a phalanx of Disney flacks to get to the microphone. "I will not be silenced!" Lasseter cries, as the deceptively slender Docter fells a burly Disney operative with a karate chop. And then...sorry, I forgot I'm in an irony-free zone. Actually, none of Pixar's big guns will be on that particular panel.
It will be interesting to see if in a few years Disney has grown its Expo to the point that it becomes a true rival to the Comic-Con. I can easily imagine that happening, especially since the Anaheim venue probably makes more sense for a large-scale fan gathering.
I almost forgot to mention the principal reason I attended this year's Comic-Con, which was, of course, the Eisner Award nomination, for best scholarly/academic book, for my Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books. Comic books seemed almost beside the point at Comic-Con, dominated as it is by big-budget movies and TV shows, but a section of the convention floor was set aside for dealers in old comic books (seriously overpriced old comic books, to my mind), and comic books were the whole point of the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards.
The day before the awards ceremony on July 10, Phyllis read the list of six nominees and said, "This one will win." She was not talking about my book, and she was right. The winner was Graphic Details: Jewish Women's Confessional Comics in Essays and Interviews, edited by Sarah Lightman. The twin juggernauts of gender and ethnicity will flatten the funny animals every time. I suppose that's why I never bothered to draft an acceptance speech.
Regardless, I enjoyed my visit to Comic-Con. It was a fascinating experience that reminded me of my first visit to Las Vegas. As in that case, I can't imagine that a return visit would be a good idea, but that doesn't mean I won't be back.
Creative costumes are a tradition at Comic-Con, and here are five con attendees costumed as well-known figures in the comics world: Jerry Beck (proprietor of the Cartoon Research website among many other things), Maggie Thompson (editor for many years with her late husband, Don, of Comics Buyer's Guide), Bill Schelly (author of the outstanding new biography of Harvey Kurtzman), and, oh, yes, Michael Barrier and wife Phyllis. You ask, are these are not the real people? The Michael Barrier look-alike's unruly hair is the giveaway; no way I'd let my hair get that long! Unless maybe I'd been traveling for two weeks with no barber in sight...
When Disneyland opened, sixty years ago next month, Western Printing & Lithographing Company sent a contingent of two dozen of its executives and their spouses, from different branches of the company and different cities—the home office at Racine, New York, Poughkeepsie, and Saint Louis. Photos of many of those people turned up in the August issue of The Westerner, the company's house organ. Western had a big stake in the success of the Disneyland— not only did it produce almost all of the books and other publications with the Disney characters, but it had bought a 13.79 percent stake in the park (which then operated as a separate company) when Walt Disney was desperately in need of money to finish it.
All thirty-two pages of the August Westerner were devoted to Disneyland and to Disney products, including the Dell comic books. You'll see below the pages with prominent mentions of the comic books or pictures of people who were closely involved with them. You'll find the names of Lloyd E. Smith and Robert S. Callender listed multiple times in the index for my book about the Dell comics, Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books, and, of course, you'll find people like Gene Autry and Rex Allen, or versions of them, in the comic books themselves.
To go to a larger version of each page, click on it.
Unidentified in The Westerner's caption for the lower photo on this page, but recognizable, are Edward Selzer, the head of Warner Bros. Cartoons, Inc., who is standing behind Rex Allen; John Burton, the Warner production manager, on the back row at the left, next to the dark-haired woman; and Chuck Jones, on the back row at the right, behind the man wearing glasses. Robert Callender is standing behind George Delacorte. As other people are identified I'll add their names here.
When Martin Williams and I co-edited A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics, we included four stories by Harvey Kurtzman, two from Mad and two from the EC war comics. After the book was published in 1982, I sent a copy to Kurtzman and got this thank-you note in return. (Which was more than I ever got from John Stanley, alas.)
Kurtzman has just become the subject of an imposing new biography by Bill Schelly, published by Fantagraphics. It's surely the most important biography of a cartoonist since David Michaelis's Schulz and Peanuts (2007), and it's a much better book. You can read my full review of Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created Mad and Revolutionized Humor in America on the Commentary page at this link.
I still have any number of good books to write about in my books backlog, including David Lesjak's Service with Character and, of course, John Canemaker's The Lost Notebook. I hope to clear away some of that backlog before I head west for the Comic-Con and other destinations.
The artwork on this splendid neckpiece is a variation on Carl Barks's drawing for the cover of the first issue of Uncle Scrooge, from 1952. But you knew that. I know of nothing in my wardrobe better suited to the Eisner Awards ceremony. (Thanks for the tie, Patrick Garabedian.)
Tomorrowland: Ever since I saw The Incredibles, I've approached any new film directed by Brad Bird, whether animated or live action, with great anticipation. Bird has earned the right to the benefit of any doubt. Unfortunately, while I was watching Tomorrowland, his new live-action feature for Disney, my doubts piled up as high as one of the futuristic spires in the movie itself.
hopelessly schematic; that is, Bird is not so much telling a story as laying out an argument. It's a cold, didactic film, sort of like one of Miyazaki's environmental fables but without the redeeming mystery and beauty (unless, that is, you find Bird's CGI city of the future beautiful rather than repellent, as I do).
There are echoes in Tomorrowland of two earlier Bird films, The Iron Giant and The Incredibles, especially the former, but in neither did Bird have to work so hard to jam together the pieces of a fatally complicated plot. There is almost no opportunity, in this movie more than two hours long, for the audience to enjoy the characters' company; George Clooney in particular seems trapped in a claustrophobic role. Here as in many other respects the fault is beyond doubt Bird's, and the whole film his folly: I counted his name six times in the end credits, including as co-author of story and screenplay.
By the time I read those credits, I was alone in the theater; the other two people in the audience had long since departed.
Bird speaks now of returning to animation, and I hope he does. I hope too that he acquires the humility, after the weak performance of Tomorrowland, to work from someone else's good script, but that may be hoping for too much.
Chico and Rita: This is not a new movie—a Spanish-British co-production, it was a surprise nominee for the best animated feature Oscar in 2012—but it's available now, at little or no cost, on
streaming services like amazon and Netflix. Milt Gray called it to my attention, and I'm glad he did. Here is what Milt said:
I love the movie because the story is so strong, involving characters we can really care about, and a lot of careful attention has been paid to the Cuban and American jazz music of the era from 1948 onward. The story carefully weaves itself through actual historical events.
Chico and Rita is not animated—it was shot in live action and then rotoscoped. But the live actors were quite expressive with their body gestures, and so the results are more pleasing than rotoscoped action usually is. Plus the drawings are not strict illustrations, as rotoscoped movies usually are—these drawings are a few steps removed from illustration, so they look and feel like cartoon characters. And the backgrounds are magnificent. They resemble Ira Turek’s backgrounds in Fritz the Cat, completely interpretive and hand drawn, but with rich detail that evokes a real atmosphere, and they are often moving in 3-D. But not like a Pixar movie—these backgrounds, even while moving in 3-D, always look hand drawn, right down to the individual brush strokes.
I discovered this movie almost by accident, on Netflix. Just as with the very different cartoon movie, Sita Sings the Blues, I thought I’d just look at five or ten minutes, but the story and the characters really hooked me and I was spellbound all the way to the end.
I watched Chico and Rita with two friends, and we all felt the same way. Highly recommended.
Tim Hollis passed through town one day last week, and Hames Ware and I met him for lunch. We talked about cartoons and old-time radio and related matters—including, most notably, the latest of Tim's more than two dozen books, Toons in Toyland: The Story of Cartoon Character Merchandise (University Press of Mississippi). I was happy to write the back-cover blurb for that book, and, if I may, let me quote myself:
This highly entertaining book evokes a time, just a few decades ago, that must seem very strange to most of today's children. It was a time when kids could see cartoons only in theaters or on TV, in shows that could not yet be recorded. Cartoon-themed merchandise was thus a way to stay connected with beloved characters who were otherwise just as inaccessible as flesh-and-blood movie stars. Thanks to Tim Hollis and his richly illustrated book, readers who remembers those days can revisit them with a smile—a lot of cartoon merchandise was hilariously awful—and younger readers can enjoy peeking through a window into what life was like before cartoons became ubiquitous on videotapes and DVD.
Exactly right, although "immensely entertaining" might say it even better.
A lot of cartoon-character merchandise has surprisingly little to do with the cartoons themselves. For instance, Tim points out in his book how far removed the early Jay Ward and Hanna-Barbera Little Golden Books were from the characters as they appeared on the screen.The first Yogi Bear Little Golden Book "seems to be based on the wrong source, as Yogi eats honey to gain strength, just as Popeye did with spinach." And then there's the first Flintstones Golden Book, in which Fred and Wilma have a son, Junior, and a pet dinosaur, Harvey.
Did such anomalies bother the people who owned the characters? Not much, I can say with considerable assurance after reading the correspondence between Western Printing and a number of its licensors when I was writing Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books. The Dell comic books often departed from their originals—sometimes radically, and often for the better—but that doesn't seem to have concerned the licensors. What really mattered to them was the size of their checks, and Western paid well, and on time.
Last February, I published on theFunnybooks feedback page a piece by Kim Weston, written originally for CAPA-alpha, about Carl Barks's income from Western Printing & Lithographing Company during the quarter century that he drew the Disney ducks for Western's Dell and Gold Key comic books. Kim has now revised and updated that comment to take into account some additional information about Western's pay rates in a memoir by Matt Murphy, who was in charge of comic books in Western's New York office from 1952 to 1970. You can go directly to Kim's update by clicking on this link.
As Kim's piece indicates, Western apparently drew distinctions based on geography (higher rates for New York artists) and the nature of the drawings (higher rates for artists who drew stories that required a more realistic style, as opposed to cartoon characters of the Disney kind). As further evidence of that, here is what "Sparky" Moore, who drew cowboys like Johnny Mack Brown for Western's Dell comic books, told Hames Ware and me in a phone interview a few years ago:
So, yes, you started at twenty dollars [per penciled and inked page], and the rate never went higher than thirty dollars. I could never get the thirty dollars. I got up to twenty-nine dollars, but I could never make it [to thirty]. I think it was Chuck McKimson who said, “Don’t worry, nobody has ever gotten it.” But that was the pay scale. And you didn’t do the lettering, you just did the artwork. They had a letterer, and when your work was delivered, all you did was put in the balloons, and he’d do the lettering. You’d do the pencils, and he’d letter it, and then you could build the picture around that.
From all appearances, Western's pay policies were like those of many other publishers that dealt with free-lancers; that is, there was a de facto minimum, but room to raise the rates a little as circumstances seemed to require. Certainly that was the way things worked when I was a sub-editor at a business magazine, commissioning short pieces. Would Carl Barks have been paid more if Western had any real reason to believe that he might bolt to another publisher? Maybe; but no other publisher was a good fit for Barks, as Western undoubtedly knew. Making him an employee was probably the best solution for both Barks and Western, since it introduced a welcome element of certainty into the inherently uncertain free-lance relationship.
There's something else, which Kim Weston points out: "Sparky Moore's comments bring up another important distinction between Barks and other artists. Sparky and other artists got a script, penciled it and sketched in space for word balloons and brought pencils in to the office. There it was lettered and possibly criticized and/or edited. Then they got it back, inked it and brought in the finished story. Writers (perhaps not all) turned in story ideas for approval, then went back and wrote them. In contrast, Barks had vastly more freedom. He came up with a story idea, wrote it, drew it, lettered it, turned it in and got paid. And generally all that with no interference or prior approval other than on gag ideas and cover ideas, and apparently often not on those either."
From Milt Gray (and ultimately from the National Archives) comes this circa-1950 photo from Times Square, documenting Little Lulu's strongest and longest-lasting commercial affiliation, with the Kimberly-Clark company, makers of Kleenex. I was reminded, looking at this photo, that Lulu's status was always a little different from that of the other stars of the monthly Dell comic books. The Disney, Warner Bros., MGM, and Lantz characters existed primarily on film; the comic books and other licensed items were spinoffs. The same was true of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. The Lone Ranger was mainly a radio and then TV character, and Red Ryder the star of a widely published comic strip. Tarzan was omnipresent in books, movies, and newspaper comics. Lulu's fame rested on her weekly gag panel in the Saturday Evening Post, but that stopped a few months before the first Little Lulu comic book appeared. There were Lulu animated cartoons for a few years in the late 1940s, and merchandise of various kinds, but it was as a comic-book character that she had the longest and most profitable life, her popularity owing in very large part to the brilliance of John Stanley's writing..
As a comics-obsessed kid, preoccupied with nerdy niceties of my own peculiar kind, I found Little Lulu's anomalous status vaguely disturbing. There was, it seemed to me, something not quite legitimate about characters that had no life to speak of outside the comic books in which they were featured. The "pure" comic-book characters, like those that filled most of the DC comic books, were a little shabby in my eyes. Memories of such pickiness embarrass me now, but I am, to be sure, still a comic-book snob. It's just that my snobbery has evolved, and it now embraces Little Lulu without the slightest hesitation.
Speaking of comic books...
As I've mentioned, my most recent book, Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books, has been nominated for one of the Eisner awards, usually described as the comic-book industry's equivalents of the Oscars. The 2015 Eisners will be awarded at Comic-Con International in San Diego the evening of July 10. I've never attended one of the San Diego conventions, but this seems like a good year to break my fast, and Phyllis and I plan to be in town for the entire convention. I'm certainly not counting on a victory in my book's "Best Scholarly/Academic Work" category—the competition is intimidating—but if it should win, how gratifying it would be to accept the award in person!
I've mentioned a number of reviews of Funnybooks that I thought showed a welcome understanding of what I was trying to do in the book, but I haven't mentioned until now the glowing review by the leading film scholar David Bordwell on his website. It's tremendously pleasing to earn praise from a writer with a record as distinguished as David's
...and comic-book people...
The name Matthew H. Murphy should ring a bell with readers of Funnybooks. He's mentioned in the book a half dozen times, as the most important of Oskar Lebeck's successors at the head of Western Printing's comic-book operations in New York City. I've just learned from Robin Snyder's invaluable monthly first-person history The Comics! that Murphy died last November 20, at the age of ninety-one. I would love to have met Murphy and talked with him about his time at Western, but by the time I began work on Funnybooks, and approached him through Robin, his health would not permit that. Fortunately, Murphy shared some of his memories with Robin, most notably in a memoir just published in Vol. 26, No. 8, of The Comics! (dated August 2015).
You won't find in Murphy's memoir (or in his letters that Robin has also published) any inconsistencies with what I've written in Funnybooks or what I was told by other Western veterans, but what Murphy writes tends more toward the acid and resentful. Happily, Robin has also published warm comments by Everett Raymond Kinstler, one of Murphy's best collaborators on titles like Silvertip and Zorro. Kinstler remembers Murphy as a "dedicated, decent and good friend," and I'm sure that's an accurate assessment. A subscription to The Comics! (twelve monthly issues) is $30 to Robin Snyder, 2745 Canterbury Lane #81, Bellingham WA 98225-1186
...which ones deserve the spotlight?
Kinstler, like Murphy, is mentioned more than once in Funnybooks. I've become aware since the book was published that I may have ruffled some feathers not through what I say about various artists and writers, but by mentioning some of them not at all. There are artists I wish I could have mentioned, like some of the veterans of the old pulp westerns of the thirties. I'm fond of the comic books illustrated by Albert Micale and Harry Parkhurst (aka Harry Parks), but their work as comic-book artists seems to me less important than, say, Jesse Marsh's on western titles like Gene Autry Comics and Johnny Mack Brown; and although I write about Marsh at some length, it's mainly in connection with his work on the most significant of his comic books, Tarzan.
I think it's important that a book like mine tell a story, clearly and accurately, and there were only so many byways I could explore without losing my story. Such considerations weighed especially heavily when I was writing about the latterday Dell and Gold Key comic books. I have nothing against Dan Spiegle, for instance, but I don't find anything in his work that makes me want to write about it. That's the last thing I could say about Barks, or Kelly, or Stanley, or Toth, or Marsh, or...well, if you've read my book, you know the names, and if you haven't read it, those names should give you some idea of what matters to me in a comic-book story.
And before I forget: I mentioned Milt Gray above, and you can find Milt on camera, talking about Bob Clampett (at a gallery, with Willie Ito in attendance), at this link, for the late Paul Maher's Children's Television Archive. The many brief interviews on that site include some not just with animation people but also comic-book artists who doubled in animation (Pete Alvarado, Owen Fitzgerald). The archive is a little rough and ready, unfortunately, with some badly misspelled names (Leo Salkin becomes "Les Selkin," Rudy Larriva is "Rudy Lavera"), but it's still a valuable resource, one I've only begun to explore. Thanks to Mark Evanier for posting a link.
I've added the photo above to my Essay on Walt Disney's arrival in London, and I've revised the text again to take better account of all the new information about the 1935 trip revealed in Didier Ghez's Disney's Grand Tour. You'll notice when you go to the Essay page that this photo is wider than the others there, but that's because I've been working with wider layouts and larger pictures for the last few years, and I decided not to shrink this one just to make it uniform with the others on the page.
Thanks to some minor but necessary eye surgery, I've been unable to read comfortably or spend much time on the computer the last ten days. I've made up for that lack in part by listening to the Amos 'n' Andy radio show from the early and mid-1940s, testing further the conclusion I reached in work on Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books, that Walt Kelly found in that show, and especially in its characters, raw material that he shaped into the "Albert and Pogo" feature in Animal Comics and ultimately into the Pogo comic strip. After listening to a few more hours of the show, and hearing some episodes for the first time, I'm still sure I'm right. I wondered if some Kelly fans might bristle at such a conclusion, but offhand I can recall almost no comments either way. Mark Mayerson wrote: "I hadn't made the connection between Kelly'sdialogue and Amos and Andy, but it's obvious now that you pointed it out." But that was about it.
Not that there's much reason to bristle if you actually listen to the radio shows, which presented Amos and Andy and their friend the Kingfish less as African Americans than as transplanted country bumpkins in the big city (New York). References to the characters' race were absent from the shows I listened to, and it was striking how often that unmistakably white characters, including a number of familiar Hollywood names, addressed Amos and Andy as "Mr. Jones" and "Mr. Brown," without a hint of sarcasm. (As "you boys" sometimes, too, but usually as the equivalent of "you guys," and not in a way that seemed racially condescending.)
Amos and Andy were of course played by two white men, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, but at the close of one show I listened to, they spoke in character but in standard English—very much as if they were black actors who had been playing characters less sophisticated than themselves.
Gosden and Correll performed in blackface in the 1931 movie Check and Double Check, a dreadful mistake that they did not repeat, but they did pose for publicity photos in blackface, as in the example from the early 1940s here. Amos 'n' Andy's saving grace was that it did not traffic in minstrel-show stereotypes, a virtue that was devalued when its creators wore blackface. When Amos 'n' Andy moved to television in 1951, the cast was made up of veteran black actors like those who had played supporting roles on the radio show, but it was too late to start over. Since then, comedy all but indistinguishable from Amos 'n' Andy has reappeared on TV many times, in shows like Sanford and Son, but the actors (if almost never the writers and directors and producers) have always been black. That makes a difference, as it should.
Anyway, to get back to Walt Kelly. If, as I believe, he found Amos 'n' Andy a fruitful source of comic ideas, that says nothing about his thinking on race, which I'm sure was never backward and was by the late 1940s certainly more advanced than that of a great many other white Americans. Just as William Shakespeare found the raw material he needed in Elizabethan melodramas and Hollinshed's Chronicles—sources no one reads for their own sake today—Kelly found a starting point in Amos 'n' Andy.
As in that earlier instance, a great creative mind can turn lead into gold. One thing that's clear from marathon listening to Amos 'n' Andy is that, even as sitcoms go, it usually wasn't very good, whereas Kelly's Pogo of the 1940s and early 1950s was a work of comic genius with few peers in any medium. Kelly repaid his debt to Amos 'n' Andy many times over.
I'll be talking about the book and signing copies at the Arkansas Literary Festival on Saturday. My session will be 10 a.m. at the Central Arkansas Library's Cox Creative Center, 120 River Market Avenue in Little Rock's downtown River Market district. My interlocutor will be Randy Duncan, a professor at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia and co-author of The Power of Comics, the trailblazing introductory textbook for comic art studies courses.
Funnybooks has been nominated for an Eisner award, in the category "Best Scholarly/Academic Work." The "scholarly" fits, I think, and I'll be delighted if I win. If you're not familiar with the Eisners, here's a link to the most up-to-date information.
The book continues to attract some good reviews, including one earlier this month by Paul Gravett in the Times Literary Supplement of London. The TLS, probably the single most prestigious literary publication in English, has given each of my last three books respectful attention, and sometimes much better than that, as with Paul's very gratifying review. It's behind a TLS paywall, unfortunately, but he has published a fuller version on his website.
I have somehow managed not to mention until now Ron Wolfe's very enjoyable piece about me and the book in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which piece is, happily and unexpectedly, not behind a paywall. Ron is a very good cartoonist himself—he draws as well as writes for the newspaper—and he once shared with me a letter he received from Carl Barks. In other words, his article is rooted in much greater knowledge of the comics, and sympathy for them, than is typical of such newspaper pieces.
The ersatz Walt Kelly, behind glass at the Pogo exhibit in the Okefenokee Swamp Park in Waycross, Georgia.
On the Road with Kelly and Barks
Phyllis and I returned last week from a two-week driving trip to the Southeast that had a few animation- and comics-related aspects. We spent a weekend with Didier Ghez and his wife, Rita, in Coral Gables, Florida, and I'm sure Didier and I bored our wives to tears with our endless talk about Disney matters large and small. I'm writing here, though, not about Disney, but about my encounters, through print and a very odd exhibit, with my favorite cartoonists, Carl Barks and Walt Kelly, two of the heroes of Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books.
The Kelly encounter came at the Okefenokee Swamp Park, a nonprofit operation in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, a few miles south of Waycross. For any devotee of Pogo, "Okefenokee" and "Waycross" are names to conjure with (likewise "Fort Mudge," which I spotted on a road sign as we approached the park). There was an annual "Pogofest" held at Waycross, starting in 1987, but it seems to have faded away after Walt Kelly's widow, Selby, died in 2005. Walt Kelly's connection with the Okefenokee Swamp was almost entirely fanciful; he did visit there once, in the 1950s, but all that the swamp actually gave him was a funny-sounding name that lent itself to comic twists.
That was enough, though, to encourage the proprietors of the Okefenokee Swamp Park to present, with Selby Kelly's blessing, an exhibit devoted to Walt and his comic strip, and it was that exhibit I wanted to see. The woman selling tickets was sympathetic—she gave me a bargain rate since I was there only to see the one exhibit—but she was not encouraging. Most visitors, she said, had no idea who Walt Kelly was. When I visited the exhibit, which is tucked away in a corner of a building in a corner of the park, I could understand why.
The heart of the exhibit is a re-creation behind glass of what is supposed to be Kelly's studio, complete with a dummy that represents Kelly himself, at his drawing board. The furnishings of the "studio," and of the cases around it, are made up of what look to be leftovers from the enormous trove of Kelly materials now housed at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum in Columbus. There is a little original art, by Kelly and Hank Ketcham, lots of printed comic strips and books, ephemera like a press pass to the 1956 Democratic national convention, and a few photos.
What is lacking is any explanation, through a wall placard or video loop or something else, of who Walt Kelly was, how he was connected to the Okefenokee, and why he is still held in high esteem by a corps of admirers, more than forty years after his death. There were traces of Pogo elsewhere in the park, like a cut-out drawing on a bridge piling, but no more than traces. No wonder most park visitors are baffled.
I couldn't help but compare the Kelly exhibit—which is, as far as I know, the only such exhibit anywhere—with the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California, which helps to keep alive Schulz's memory, and awareness of his art, not just through an exemplary museum presentation but also through traveling exhibits.
Kelly deserves as much.
If the fannish side of Pogo's post-Walt Kelly existence has been shrinking in recent years—I last received a subscription copy of the Kelly fan magazine, The Fort Mudge Most, in 2009—the more solid and substantial side, rooted in educated readers' awareness of just how wonderful Pogo could be in Kelly's prime years, appears to be thriving, thanks especially to Fantagraphics' splendid collections of the Pogo dailies and Sundays. Likewise, Carl Barks's reputation seems to be enjoying a bump upward thanks to Fantagraphics' reprint series.
I'll have more to say about both series in a few days, in a roundup piece about recent books.
I read a little book about Barks, Carl Barks' Duck: Average American by Peter Schilling Jr. (Uncivilized Books) during the trip, and I enjoyed it, mainly because Schilling obviously loves and admires Barks's stories and relishes writing about them. He read reprinted Barks stories as a kid, but he really connected with Barks through the 1978 Abbeville Press reprint volumes that credited Barks as the author of those stories. The awful Abbeville Press reprints, I should say, because they mauled Barks's page layouts and even his dialogue, but as Schilling's response proves, Barks's genius was so strong that it could survive that careless treatment. Schilling has long since moved on to the Gladstone and Fantagraphics reprints.
Schilling doesn't write about the whole body of Barks's stories—he makes a point of saying that he's writing only about his favorites. Those favorites, fourteen in all, are concentrated in the late 1940s and early 1950s (the period when I think Barks was at his best). They consist of some of Barks's longer stories, mostly from the Donald Duck Four Color series, plus a handful from Walt Disney's Comics & Stories that Schilling calls the "work stories," stories in which Donald becomes an expert rainmaker or a master glasser or something else of the sort.
As writers about Barks's stories tend to do, Schilling struggles a bit with Donald, the problem being that Donald varies so much in Barks's best stories but is always a vivid and distinct personage. Like many other comic-book "funny animals," Barks's Donald lacks a fixed identity; what sets him apart is that his identity in any given story seems to be the only right one when you're reading it.
When I wrote about Donald's mutability in Funnybooks, I invoked Montaigne ("Each man bears the entire form of man's estate"), but I wonder if what John Keats called Shakespeare's "negative capability" might be even more to the point.
What Keats meant by that phrase, as far as anyone can tell, is that Shakespeare left no traces of himself in his characters; that is, the characters are not assertions of the writer's ego but have independent existence. Barks did something similar, the difference being, of course, that all of the highly varied characters that held center stage in his best stories were called "Donald Duck" (and looked like Donald Duck, too). I don't think it will do to describe Donald as an "actor," as Schilling does; that would mean there is a single "real" Donald at the heart of all those performances, and what makes the stories so good is that there isn't one.
Donald is "real" in those stories, to be sure, but differently each time.
I suspect Schilling's unease with Donald's mutability is of a piece with his enthusiasm for "Vacation Time" (1950) from the first issue of Walt Disney's Vacation Parade. Donald
is, in much of that story, if not exactly mature, recognizably adult and even admirable, more so than in other stories that I think are better.
The "Vacation Time" Donald is a simpler character than the Donald in those
other stories, and what I relish in Barks's best stories is Donald's complexity. That complexity is manifested in pages like those I've cited in Funnybooks from "Luck of the North" (1949) and "The Gilded Man" (1952), where we can see the workings of Donald's mind; Schilling doesn't mention those pages, even though he writes at length about both stories.
Schilling can be wrongheaded, as in his misreading of the conflict between Uncle Scrooge and the Beagle Boys. When he asks, "who doesn't root for the Beagle Boys in their pursuit?" I think most readers would give him an answer he didn't expect, unless those readers had surrendered their souls to some large, impersonal organization like Beagle Boys, Inc. But I agree with him that the latterday emphasis on Scrooge is misplaced; the best Four Color adventures are far superior to anything in Uncle Scrooge. Likewise, Schilling is inclined to nitpick, but that impulse sometimes yields amusing and interesting results. Before reading his book, I hadn't given much thought to the role that eggs often play in Barks's stories; but he was, after all, briefly a poultry farmer.
Much of the recent writing about Barks has been academic in flavor and often in fact. Schilling's book is not like that, and that's why I like it. He sometimes goes too far in the other direction, indulging in the pointlessly coarse rather than taking the trouble to write with greater precision, but I can forgive a great deal in someone who loves Barks's comic books as much as he does.
Funnybooks in Review. The fifth issue of the Carl Barks Fan Club Pictorial, published by Joseph and Barb Cowles, is out, with my piece titled "The Improbable Glories of Carl Barks." It's an expanded and revised version of the preface to Funnybooks, with a page of my photos of Barks taken between 1969 and 1998. There's also a gratifyingly positive review of Funnybooks by Barb, and lots of other Barks-related material, most of it about his comic-book work, rather than the paintings that have been a focus of fan interest in recent years. Kim Weston is an important contributor, writing in precise detail about Barks's single "Andy Panda" story for New Funnies, and restoring and reformatting a wartime "Barney Bear and Benny Burro" story so that it appears for the first time in the correct proportions. And there's more. The CBFC Pictorial is beautifully produced, in full color throughout. The list price is $15.95, but it's available from amazon.com for (as of this writing) $12.46. Highly recommended.
And for a review of Funnybooks written from a different perspective, that of "furry fandom," let me refer to you Fred Patten's review at this link. What is "furry fandom," you may ask? I'm really not quite sure how to describe it, even though the phenomenon has attracted growing media coverage. Best you visit Fred's "Dogpatch Press" site and explore "furry fandom" for yourself. Fred says of Funnybooks that it's "the story of the comic-book publisher whose works did more than any others’ to inspire furry fandom," and that should give you a clue as to what "furry fandom" is all about.
Tim Burton's Dumbo. Disney revealed early this month that a live-action/CGI version of Dumbo is in the works, with Tim Burton directing.
I was reminded of something I wrote a dozen years ago, in a review of Lilo and Stitch. I didn't know it at the time, but Disney was then contemplating not a live-action remake of Dumbo, but a direct-to-video animated sequel. I suggested how a remake might look, given the priorities being observed by the Disney of 2003:
If Dumbo were being made by today's Disney studio, ... Dumbo (his name changed to Zumbo to avoid offending the stupid) would talk, of course, and he and Timothy would have a conversation in which Zumbo says something like "G-g-gosh, Timothy, isn't it wonderful that the magic feather will let me fly? D-d-do you suppose that I might be able to fly some day without the feather?" Timothy replies, a little nervously: "Nah—nah—let's stick with the feather, pal. No use gettin' fancy!"
And then, as Zumbo is plummeting to earth, his pink and cuddly little elephant girlfriend cries out, from where she has been imprisoned by the evil ringmaster, "Zumbo! I know you can do it! Fly, Zumbo, fly!" But Zumbo keeps plunging toward that tub, not knowing that when he hits it, that will be the signal for the evil ringmaster to grow to enormous size and unleash a horde of evil clowns on the world. And then ...well, enough of such morbid fantasizing.
Actually, my morbid fantasizing was probably not morbid enough.
Gordon Kent and Chris Barat. To my regret, I never met either of these men, both of whom died recently, and both much too young. Gordon and I corresponded occasionally, brought together originally by our shared affection for Roger Armstrong. I posted a dozen or more of his comments on comics and animation—he worked for many years at TV-cartoon studios—and they were always a pleasure to read. I last heard from him in 2011, which was, I have learned from Mark Evanier's warm and affectionate tribute, the year Gordon was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Chris Barat and I never exchanged any messages, as best I can tell, and I somehow managed not to be aware of the regard in which he was held by many fans of the Disney comic books. Probably that was because he devoted considerable attention on his blog, News and Views by Chris Barat, to subjects, like the Don Rosa stories with the ducks and the TV series DuckTales, that have never much interested me. But he wrote about them very well, enough to make me want to take another look. Late last year, he wrote a review of Funnybooks that I didn't see until after his death from complications attending a kidney transplant; I wish I had seen it in time to thank him for it.
Bill Benzon. He's the scholar who posts remarkable "close readings" of animated cartoons, some of which you'll find elsewhere on this site if you run a search for his name. They're always worth a serious fan's attention. His most recent is of Bob Clampett's Porky in Wackyland, on the academia.edu site. Bill also posts a wide variety of material, most of it unrelated to cartoons, on his own New Savanna blog (I particularly recommend the item about the extinction of the woolly mammoth). I think Bill qualifies as a polymath, and it's good to know that cartoons have attracted the interest of at least one such person.
Coming attractions. I have let a lot of worthy books pile up, again, and I hope to post another "book backlog" item soon that will give them their due. I'll be writing separately about the most important recent book, John Canemaker's The Lost Notebook.
Gerry Geronimi is seated at the left in the photo above, next to Walt Disney. Wilfred Jackson, another Disney director, is seated at the far right, and he described the circumstances of this photo in a 1971 letter to Bob Clampett: "This was the day Max Fleischer, who made the 'Out of the Inkwell' cartoons I admired so much when I was a boy, visited the Disney Studio. I had the privilege of showing him all around the studio in the morning, then we had lunch with Walt and some of the oldtimers in the studio cafeteria." The "oldtimers," some of them mentioned in the Geronimi interview, include, from Walt's left, Ben Sharpsteen, Ted Sears, Max Fleischer, Dick Huemer, George Stallings, Max's son Richard Fleischer (who directed the Disney live-action feature 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), and Andy Engman. Facing the camera at another table in the background are the Disney executives Bill Anderson and Card Walker.
Interviews: Gerry Geronimi
Milt Gray and I interviewed Geronimi, the most controversial, not to say reviled, of the Disney animation directors, in 1976, and you can read the complete transcript of that interview at this link.
My interviews require a lot of work before they're suitable for publication—especially the earlier interviews, like Geronimi's, that exist only as typescripts that must be scanned, and not as computer files. Unfortunately, the work required doesn't seem to be diminishing over time, despite my occasional wishful thinking that I've found a magic bullet of some kind. I'm often prey to doubts that the audience for the interviews is large enough to justify so much work, but I know that at least a few people share my interest in them. There's Didier Ghez, of course, who in his ongoing Walt's People series has collected hundreds of vintage interviews, including a number of mine. Pete Docter of Pixar likes them, too, and I invited Pete to suggest some priorities once I had the Geronimi interview posted. He proposed two Disney directors: Wilfred Jackson, whom I interviewed at length in 1973 and 1976, and Jack Kinney, whom I interviewed in 1973, 1976, and 1986. Excellent choices, and I'll post some or all of those interviews. Probably not real soon, but keep checking back.
Will Friedwald's wonderful review of my latest book, Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books, is on page C10 of the Review section in today's Wall Street Journal. Here's a link. Happily, Will's review doesn't seem to be behind a paywall.
Thad Komorowski has produced an outstanding six-minute tribute to Michael Sporn that was broadcast earlier this week as a segment of the WBGO Journal and is now accessible at this link.
The Sporn tribute is about as long as a classic animated short, and like the best of those shorts it's bright and compact. The listener learns a lot about Michael Sporn, and about what made him special, in a very short time.
Several of Michael's friends and colleagues—John Canemaker, Mark Mayerson, Ray Kosarin—and Michael's widow, Heidi Stallings, speak on the show about what made Michael so distinctive and admirable a filmmaker: his deep New York roots, his devotion to animation as an art form, the artistic sensibility that he expressed with so much integrity while working on a remarkable number of subjects in a wide variety of styles.
Michael really was a marvel, and he deserves to be remembered as fully and as sympathetically as he is in the WBGO segment. Thank you, Thad.
According to Art Babbitt, who lent me this photo for copying, Gunther Lessing, at the right, hosted this party early in 1940, long before Babbitt and Lessing collided in the runup to the 1941 Disney studio strike. Babbitt is at the far left, seated by his wife, Marjorie Belcher; the animator Les Clark and his wife, Mimi, are across the table, next to Lessing. The writing on the cover of the program on the table is "Carl Laemmle Theatre."
On Gunther Lessing
I've added a sentence to my essay called "Walt's Adventures in the Ivy League" to take into account that Gunther Lessing, for many years Disney's general counsel, was a 1908 graduate of the law school at Yale University, one of the two Ivy League schools that gave Walt Disney an honorary degree in 1939.
Lessing's colorful personal history, as a native of Waco, Texas, and a lawyer in El Paso, was recounted in an article by Ballard Coldwell Shapleigh in the April-May 2011 issue of the El Paso Bar Journal. That article includes the first confirmation I've seen that Lessing's family background was not only German but also Jewish, as Ward Kimball told me back in 1986, in an interview that I posted here in 2003. I was skeptical, but it seems that Kimball was right. Here is what the Bar Journal says about Lessing's family history:
Gunther Rudolph Lessing was born in Waco, Texas, on July 20, 1885, three years after his sister, Hannah. His father, Rudolph Lessing, came from the state of Hessen in Germany. Rudolph was a prominent merchant and cotton factor in Waco doing business with three partners under the name of Lessing, Solomon and Rosenthal.
Rudolph Lessing was a charter member of the Temple Rodef Sholom congregation founded in Waco in 1879, and reputed to be the oldest Jewish reform congregation in central Texas. He was also that congregation's first president.
Rudolph died when Gunther was age 10. Gunther's mother, Bertha Bouger, was also a native of Hessen but nine years younger than her spouse. She died in El Paso in 1911.
There are any number of loose ends here, some of which it may be possible to tie up with research in the online sources that have become available in the last few years. For example, was Gunther Lessing's mother Jewish? If she was not, that would have some bearing on whether Lessing regarded himself as Jewish, since Jewish identity is traditionally regarded as inherited through the mother.
This scrap of information about Lessing's ethnicity is another strike against the persistent notion that Walt Disney was anti-Semitic. Walt and Roy Disney worked closely with Lessing for more than thirty years; it's impossible for me to believe they were unaware of Lessing's Jewish heritage, any more than they were unaware of Joe Grant's or Maurice Rapf's or Kay Kamen's.
The Disneys were certainly aware of the more notorious aspects of Lessing's past, such as his involvement with Pancho Villa, the Mexican revolutionary, and Dolores Del Rio, the Mexican actress, and his headline-making divorce in 1932. They valued him for his loyalty and pugnacity; nothing else mattered very much.
(Thanks to Garry Apgar for alerting me to Lessing's Yale connection.)
November 2014: Funnybooks struggles into print, Frank Frazetta's animation art, Bob Hope and Bugs Bunny, what jazz's history has to say about animation's, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston interviewed in July 1987.
October 2014: Reviews of new Disney books, including A Mickey Mouse Reader, how animation became the confusion of life, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston interviewed in October 1976.
September 2014: Being puzzled by Deja and Keane, the difference between Disney and "Disney."
August 2014: More on the Dell pinups, vintage photos from my 1971 visit to Disneyland.
July 2014: The Dell Comics Club, a batch of book reviews, the passing of Sody Clampett, a better picture of Carl Barks, "internal" versus "instrumental" motives in the animation industry.
June 2014: The Fairest One of All reviewed, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Carl Barks's first published work, Walt and Diane Disney in Chicago in 1943, more on "concept art," the myth of the missing Disney credits, Felidae.
May 2014: Disney's Grand Tour, "concept art," Little Lulu's cinematic debut.
April 2014: Sick Little Monkeys, a Funnybooks update, a memorial celebration for Michael Sporn, Walt Disney's skeptical supervisor at Kansas City Film Ad.
March 2014: John Stanley's 100th birthday, remembering Michael Sporn and Robin Allan, seeing Frozen and Saving Mr. Banks.
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.
New to the site? Click here to go to
a page that explains what it's all about.
To comment on anything on the site, write to me at the following address: firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll assume that your comments are intended for publication unless you specify otherwise.
Each item listed below is linked through a "named anchor" to the corresponding posting on this home page. Each of those links is valid for as long as the item remains on the home page, but there's also a permanent link at the end of each item that will take you to the appropriate archival page.
The stand-alone pages—under the heads Commentary, Essays, etc.—all have permanent URLs.