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"What's New" Archives: July-August 2004

August 29, 2004:

THE RETURN OF JOHN K.: John Kricfalusi has responded to my August 22 posting with an exceptionally long and detailed rebuttal. As John says, "It's hard work, this banter!"

John is making a three-week business trip, and I'll be similarly tied up the first few weeks of September, so our exchange (and the site as a whole) will probably be quiet until late in the month. John and I will be trading emails, though, and by the time the site springs back to life there may be several new messages posted. For sure, I'll put up a detailed answer to his latest challenge.

I hope you're enjoying our verbal jousting, and I hope you realize how unusual it is. At an academic message board, the recent talk has been about whether cartoons are "modern" as literary critics use the term (everything is artificial) or "postmodern" (everything is artificial and false). At the more fannish message boards, cartoons are typically just fuel for mindless chatter. To be talking about what's actually on the screen, and why it matters—such an exchange is truly rare in today's online world, but that's what John and I are doing.

August 27, 2004:

WORD FROM JOHN K.: I've heard from John Kricfalusi, who writes: "I will answer your last email soon. Maybe tonight if I find some energy. It's too bad we can't illustrate our points with frame grabs. Maybe someday we can do a book." In the meantime, don't miss Amid Amidi's illuminating interview with John at the Cartoon Brew site.

As Amid says in regard to my exchange with John, "it's unlikely that Mike could be having this conversation with any other creator of an animated TV series." A case in point: Father of the Pride, the "adult" CGI series from DreamWorks that will air next Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET. What questions directed to the creators of this series could possibly make any sense, except perhaps "Whose idea was this?" If for some reason you want to read about Father of the Pride before watching it (and yes, I will watch it), there's an article up on USA Today's site.

August 25, 2004:

TASTES LIKE...: Sorry, folks, but John Kricfalusi has not come out of his corner (my God, Stimpy, what would Kirk Douglas say!), so our dynamic debate may be at an end.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: In the absence of such distractions, I hope you'll raise a toast to Walt Kelly on the ninety-first anniversary of his birth (kudos to Mark Evanier for reminding us of the date). Perhaps in another nine years, on Kelly's centennial, America's greatest comic-strip creator will finally be receiving the recognition—a commemorative stamp, speeches in Congress, and so on—that he deserves. And here's food for thought: when I refer to Kelly as the "greatest," I have foremost in mind his work in the early fifties. Think about the other great comic-strip cartoonists who were in, near, or entering their prime then, and who could be considered contestants for Kelly's title—Schulz, Caniff, Capp, Crane ... the list could be extended quite a ways. Can you think of any of today's cartoonists who might plausibly be anointed "the greatest"? Sorry, but I can't.

As a a refugee from a newspaper, I can testify that too many newspaper people regard comic strips as a nuisance, tolerable only because they attract a few readers who might otherwise bypass the paper entirely. The idea of trying to make the comics actively attractive to readers—not just by cutting the number of strips (which newspaper executives would always love to do), but also by reproducing those left at a readable size—is totally alien to most of the people who actually make the decisions. That's why the comics pages are dominated by simply drawn, moronically gagged strips: they can remain legible when squeezed into a tiny space, and their fundamental similarity to one another strokes the prejudices of the editors who control them. The prospects for another "Pogo," so richly drawn and written, are extremely dim at best. Likewise, "Calvin and Hobbes" seems more and more like an aberration that the newspaper trolls will never allow to happen again.

August 24, 2004:

MOTHRA V. GODZILLA: I've not yet heard again from John Kricfalusi, so the next installment in our ongoing battle will be a bit longer in appearing.

TRASHING WALT: The Perfect American, a "fictionalized biography" of Walt Disney by Peter Stephan Jungk, was published last spring and has been receiving fitful attention from reviewers. A selection of those reviews, including Ron Charles's in the Christian Science Monitor and Richard Schickel's in the Los Angeles Times, is available at this site.

I haven't read the book, and don't intend to. I don't object to "fictionalized biographies" in principle—Disney himself made any number of films, like the Davy Crockett TV shows, that fall squarely in that category—but I've read nothing to indicate that Jungk's intention was to revivify Walt, by imagining what the real human being was like. Instead, he seems to have erected a straw man, one who recites this utterly preposterous prayer each morning in bed: "I am a leader, a pioneer, I am one of the great men of our time. More people in the world know my name than that of Jesus Christ. ... I have created a universe. My fame will outlast the centuries."

Predictably, Schickel has taken the bait, writing this of Disney as he was late in his life: "[N]ow, a few grouchy intellectuals aside, everything he touched seemed wonderful to the world. And everything he touched turned to gold—nevermind [sic] that the fairy tales he retold on the screen had been robbed of their essential darkness and terror. Or that his nature films replaced the animal kingdom's Darwinian struggles for survival with the chipper cuddlesomeness that was the Magic Kingdom's hallmark. Or that his theme park rubbed the rawness out of human experience and drew mouse ears and smiley faces on the resultant blank spots." And so on, and on.

Such is, alas, today's world of book chat, in which, too often, a review consists of one literary charlatan ruminating or rhapsodizing over the offenses of another. Where Walt Disney is concerned, the pattern is always the same: exaggerate Disney's importance to American culture, minimize or ignore his real accomplishments, and over-simplify, to make dismissing it easier, everything in his work that invites doubt or question. (For example, the True-Life Adventures are open to criticism on many points, but if there's any "chipper cuddlesomeness" in White Wilderness, it's certainly not in the chilling footage showing a savage wolverine scaling a tree to kill a helpless fledgling osprey.) Finally, of course, Disney must be condemned, on scanty evidence, for anti-Semitism and a multitude of other sins.

By insisting on sanitized versions of their patron saint's life and works, the Disney family and the Walt Disney Company have earned much of the blame for the steady parade of shoddy books denigrating Walt. He was a much more interesting man than either his devotees or his detractors are willing to admit.

August 23, 2004:

BETWEEN ROUNDS: While John Kricfalusi and I pause in our Battle of the Century, I'll post some comments by Thad Komorowski to balance Eddie Fitzgerald's pro-John K. comments yesterday.

Thad is one of the proprietors of Golden Age Cartoons, a new umbrella site whose elements include several sites devoted to Golden Age cartoon studios (Warner Bros., Lantz, Columbia), a Felix the Cat site maintained by the Felix expert David Gerstein, a site about "Classic Cartoon Records," and one that reprints stories from comic books like Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. It's also now the home base for several forums, including the one called the Termite Terrace Trading Post. I've recommended some of the individual sites on my Links page—they used to be under Toon Zone's wing—and I'm happy to recommend them again. I'm particularly impressed by the work that Thad, Pietro Shakarian, Jack Tatay, and Jon Cooke have done on the Lantz Encyclopedia, but you'll enjoy visits to all the sites under Golden Age Cartoons' umbrella.

On to Thad's comments:

"Kricfalusi's egotistical nature has always been somewhat annoying, but this is the straw that broke the camel's back. Saying that his animation has more personality than Bill Tytla's... Saying that his work is better than the world's best comic-book writer and artist... Hey, he might as well say that his vocal crew defines the characters they voice more than Clarence Nash and Pinto Colvig did, or how there's better character interaction in his scripts than Michael Maltese's!

"The most unprofessional point was bringing up Carl Barks. Kricfalusi knew he was at somewhat of a losing end in the argument, so he resorts to the usual 'stupid guy's way out'... He brings up something that he knows will get on your nerves. Well, he got on my nerves, too. He's got it the wrong way around: fifty Ren & Stimpy drawings can't hold a candle to just the opening panel of one of Barks's stories.

"If it wasn't for the fact that I've long thought that the original Ren & Stimpy series was the best cartoon series in the past thirty years, I'd say Mr. John K. would be losing one sale of his DVD set."

Speaking of that DVD set: it's supposed to consist of the first two seasons of the R&S show of the early nineties, and it's supposed to be released October 12. (Tentative wording is always in order when a John K. project is involved.) You can read more about the set, and order it through amazon.com, by clicking here.

August 22, 2004:

MORE KRICFALUSI V. BARRIER: I've posted my reply to John Kricfalusi's latest on the page devoted to our exchange. I've begun dating the messages, in the hope that it'll be a little easier to find the latest ones when you go to that page.You can also click a link at the top of the page to go directly to the message added today.

Kricfalusi is a controversial figure in animation—did I even need to say that?—who inspires both devotion and disdain. For an example of the former, here's a message I received today from Eddie Fitzgerald, who works as a storyboard artist at John K.'s studio, Spumco:

"John is indeed the best actor with a pencil in the history of animation. It's a shame that John had to say it himself but its as true as any fact could possibly be and it's wonderful to see it in print. What needs to be explained is why so many of us didn't commit ourselves to this obvious truth earlier. We all like to think we're superior to the old French establishment who failed to see the value of impressionism or the Dutch who nearly allowed Rembrandt to starve but in fact we're just like them. We had our binoculars out, looking for the next Chuck Jones, and we failed to see the authentic genius standing right beside us. Maybe we can redeem ourselves by doing everything in our power to see that this man is always fully funded and in command of cutting-edge projects. The day will come when John gets hit by a car and we'll all be in the church pews sobbing and wishing we'd done more for him. I say let's chain him to a desk, throw money and women at him, and wring every every drawing from him that we can possibly get while he's still with us."

You can read more admiring prose by Eddie about his boss on this Feedback page.

August 21, 2004:

BACK AND FORTH WITH JOHN K.: John Kricfalusi and I have been jawing at each other recently, via e-mail, about the two most recent installments in his Ren & Stimpy: Adult Party Cartoon series for the Spike TV cable network. We've agreed to share our correspondence with the world, and you can read it by clicking here.

ON WALT KELLY: Mark Mayerson wrote in response to my comments about the great "Pogo" cartoonist:

"Your August 19 comments on Kelly took me by surprise. You've most certainly talked to more people who knew Kelly than I have. I wonder what other things have contributed to your view of Kelly. While I know that Kelly was too interested in alcohol and women than he might have been, I don't know that I've ever seen anything in his work or read anything about him that would justify the word 'tormented.' Is there other information behind your impression than what you printed?

"I don't have any axe to grind. I'm certainly not accusing you of slandering Kelly's sainted memory. As somebody who admires John Ford, I'm used to living with contradictions between an artist and his work. (Maureen O'Hara's new autobiography adds more Ford stories to the mix. My question about Ford is whether he had any self awareness about his behavior or not).

"If there's other Kelly material that contributed to your view, I'd certainly be interested in knowing about it."

When I said "tormented," that was probably too strong. As for "strange" and "troubled," those words describe an impression built up in bits and pieces over the years.

Here, for example, is some of what Morris Gollub, his colleague at the Disney studio and on Western Publishing's comic books, told me about Kelly: "He was one of the brightest guys you'd ever want to know, really very sharp, but a little insecure, and I never knew quite why. ... He was nervous and anxious, and he had a lot of little perverse streaks. He used to call [Dan] Noonan and me periodically and talk about some big projects that he had. We knew he was lying, and we couldn't figure out what his motivation was."

I hear in Kelly's recorded voice, and in some of what I've read and been told about him, disturbing echoes of the old newspapermen I learned to shun when I was a kid reporter at the Arkansas Gazette many years ago: bitter, cynical, and self-destructive, especially where alcohol was concerned (Kelly was a prodigious drinker). With the crucial difference that Kelly was a creative genius who for a few years made full and brilliant use of his great gifts.

There were other sides to Kelly's personality, of course, and quite possibly they should be assigned greater weight than those traits that have led me to think of him as "strange" and "troubled." Maurice Noble, for one, remembered him as a delightful co-worker during production of Chuck Jones's "Pogo" TV special. Maybe some day Kelly will be the subject of the biography that he deserves, and we will all have a better sense of the man.

August 20, 2004:

In regard to my August 17 item, this from Amid Amidi, at Cartoon Brew: "There seems to be some mass confusion about the airdate of the new Ren & Stimpy: Adult Cartoon Party episodes. A Spike TV rep told me this morning that the episodes will not premiere on August 20th and that no airdate is currently set for the new installments. Confusion indeed." That "mass confusion" originated with the preview site for the show itself, which as of this morning was still promoting an August 20th premiere.

I've been spending quite a lot of time lately with Disney live-action features and TV shows, most of which I would hesitate to recommend to people whose prime interest is in animation. But I like the new DVD devoted to the 1959 feature Darby O'Gill and the Little People.

This is, for one thing, a feature that for more than a decade was a candidate for production as a combination of live-action and animation, until Disney decided to make it entirely in live action. The DVD's bonus features include a fascinating featurette on how the Disney people used forced perspective to show full-sized humans and much smaller leprechauns in the same frame. The illusion is for the most part carried off very successfully—the only problem being, of course, that computer graphics have encouraged us to take such illusions for granted.

The real treat among the bonus features is "I Captured the King of the Leprechauns," a complete episode of Walt Disney Presents that aired twice in 1959. This is an hour-long trailer for Darby O'Gill, one of many such trailers on the Disney anthology show, but it stands out from the others because Walt Disney himself is so much a part of it. Usually, Walt appeared only in brief introductions to his shows, but in "I Captured" he's an endearingly awkward actor in a hokey story about how he came to make the film. (At the instigation of the Irish-American actor Pat O'Brien, he goes to Ireland, where he meets Darby O'Gill, who leads him to King Brian; Darby and Brian then agree to appear in a film about themselves).

As for the feature itself, it's enjoyable enough. There are echoes of The Quiet Man, but there's no mistaking this sweet-tempered, low-wattage fantasy for a John Ford film.

August 19, 2004:

The smiling gentleman (and reluctant camera subject) in the photo to the right is Norman Tate, who was a Disney animator in the late thirties and early forties; you'll find his name in the credits for Fantasia, Pinochio, and Victory Through Air Power. After leaving Disney, Norm spent most of his career in advertising. At 89, he now lives in a village in Maine, where Phyllis and I spent a pleasant couple of hours with him earlier this month.

Taping Norm's memories of the Disney days, I was reminded of how different the world looked when Milt Gray and I began taping interviews with Golden Age animation people more than thirty years ago. Today, few such people are still with us, and fewer still are healthy enough to sit for interviews; then, the problem was an abundance of possible interview subjects. In the seventies, there were literally hundreds of people around who had worked in New York and Hollywood animation studios for decades, going back to the teens. Setting priorities for interviews was fiendishly difficult: Whose memories were likely to be sharpest? Whose health was failing? In retrospect, it seems miraculous that Milt and I got as many of the right people on tape as we did.

I think sometimes about all the people we didn't interview because death or illness removed them from the list of possibilities, or because they had died before we even began our interviews. When I muse about whom I most wish I could have interviewed, one name comes instantly to mind. Not Walt Disney—there is so much Walt available, on film and in transcripts and letters, that a brief encounter with the man himself would probably not have added a great deal to my knowledge. In his later years, especially, Walt had become so adept at putting on a "public face" that an interview would almost certainly have been a disappointment.

No, the man I wish I could have met and interviewed was Walt Kelly. Not because Kelly would have been a fount of information about his Disney studio work (or anything else), and not even because he was a fabulous cartoonist who in "Pogo" executed broad comedy with a jeweler's precision. I wish I could have met him because he seems to have been such a strange, troubled, and even tormented character. I can't help but wonder how that clouded personality and that sunlit comic strip—as I've said before, the greatest of them all, in my opinion—fit together.

I've been struck by the truculence and sarcasm that colors Kelly's voice when I've heard him in recordings. I also remember hearing, in the early sixties, a Dave Garroway radio show on which Kelly was a guest. As the Kelly segment began, Kelly apologized to Garroway for something he had said off-mike; I believe it was something about Garroway's wife, who had killed herself a year or two before. It was, to say the least, a strange thing for Kelly to do—if an apology was in order, it should have been offered after the segment was finished—but something made Kelly do it. I've always wondered what that was. Not that Kelly would have told me; but maybe, if I'd met him and talked with him for a few hours, I could have made a start toward figuring it out for myself.

August 17, 2004:

John Kricfalusi, the most gifted—and most exasperating—of today's animation filmmakers, is back on cable this month with new episodes of Ren & Stimpy (or, as it's now called, Ren & Stimpy Adult Party Cartoon). The first will premiere this Friday night, August 20, at midnight EST. Click here for preview clips and other stuff. Or here, to read my highly skeptical review of last year's first entry in the new R&S series.

August 16, 2004:

As promised in yesterday's posting, here's an Essay page on John Fawcett's museum. That's the exterior of the museum above.

A thought for the day: "Things don't have to be warm in order to be moving." - Joan Acocella in The New Yorker.

In animation, most people assume that "warmth" of some kind is the only way to reach an audience; thus the extravagant displays of counterfeit emotions in so many recent animated features, especially those from Disney, DreamWorks, and Blue Sky. And, certainly, many animated films that deliberately eschew warmth—think of the typical festival program, or almost any offering of "experimental" animation—are no more than cold and remote. But the animated film that has lingered most persistently in my memory the last few weeks is Marc Craste's Jo Jo in the Stars, which I saw at Annecy. It's not what most people would call a "warm" film, but it's haunting and even moving, adjectives that I doubt that anyone will ever apply to Ice Age or Home on the Range.

Another thought for the day: "We have mixed feelings about Disney. Its excellent assets and content make it a good bet in the media market. However, we're bothered by the company's habit of not looking out for shareholders." - Morningstar.com.

August 15, 2004:

I was in Maine last week and visited my friend John Fawcett's fantastic Antique Toy & Art Museum on Route One in Waldoboro. The museum is home to an astonishing collection of animation- and comics-related rarities. I'll shortly be posting some photos I took during that visit, but, in the meantime, here's a link to John's Web site. If you're heading for Acadia National Park or other Maine locations this summer or fall, be sure to include an hour or two at John's place on your itinerary. It'll be four dollars well spent.

Thanks to Jerry Beck, I no longer have to bite my tongue about the second Golden Collection of Warner Bros. cartoons, out on DVD this fall. Jerry has posted a complete list of the bonus features, including eleven audio commentaries I recorded in Little Rock last spring, at the Cartoon Brew site. There will be a total of thirty-one audio commentaries, including some by people other than the usual suspects: I'm very much looking forward to hearing what Bill Melendez says about The Big Snooze and John Kricfalusi says about The Great Piggy Bank Robbery. Bob Clampett will be an especially powerful presence in this set, but as the list of bonus features indicates, many other important contributors to the Warner cartoons will be receiving their due as well.

If you've read my "Filming of Fritz the Cat" under the Funnyworld Revisited tab, you may want to bring yourself up to date on Ralph Bakshi's recent activities by visiting his new Web site. "Morbidly fascinating" is the descriptive phrase of choice.

My fifth and final stop on my June tour of Europe was England, where I interviewed Richard Todd (aka Robin Hood and Rob Roy) and other people involved in Walt Disney's British live-action productions. I haven't yet figured out how to work up that part of my trip as a "European Journal" installment, but I hope to do so soon.

August 2, 2004:

Because they're expensive, animated features of the Hollywood kind are one of those art forms, like grand opera and architecture, that inevitably depend on patrons of some sort. The news this morning of Steve Jobs's apparently successful cancer surgery is a reminder of how much the surging popularity of computer animation owes to that one enlightened patron. Jobs is no artist himself, but he supported John Lasseter and his colleagues at Pixar in their pioneering work.

Whatever the reservations I may feel about Pixar's films—and I've expressed such reservations on this site—they're clearly the work of artists. Artists, moreover, who are, like Walt Disney in his greatest years, wholly comfortable with the aim of reaching the largest possible audience. That's why I look forward to seeing each new Pixar film.

The next Pixar film, The Incredibles, promises to be the most interesting yet, because its director, Brad Bird, has heretofore directed only hand-drawn films like The Iron Giant. With release of The Incredibles only three months away, we'll be reading and hearing a great deal about the film, and particularly about Bird's transition to "3D." You can read three of the first such articles by clicking here, here, or here.

Speaking of filmmakers who care about their work, I want to call your attention again to Michael Sporn, the Manhattan-based cartoon maker whose films were the subject of a Commentary earlier this year. I'm not the only one who thinks Michael and his films are special. I heard this a few days ago from Doug Vitarelli, a New York animator:

"I really enjoyed your commentary on Michael. I recently started a new job and happened upon his new studio in Greenwich Village.I stopped in to say hello—he was the first person to give me a job in animation, back in 1987—and there he was: animating a feature about Edgar Allen Poe, with one assistant.

"What you expressed is very much how I felt about him almost twenty years ago, and it continues to this day. Thanks for that."

July 31, 2004:

The fourth installment in my European Journal is about Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens. Visiting there, I understood what it was about Tivoli that appealed to Walt Disney when he was planning his own pleasure garden.

July 26, 2004:

I've made a third entry in my European Journal, this one devoted to the Swiss village of Zermatt, a place that was important to Walt Disney. Previously posted: my thoughts on this year's Annecy festival, where I saw an assortment of shorts and Bill Plympton's Hair High, and Disneyland Paris.

July 24, 2004:

The rap on me is that I'm too negative. My critics say that I hate cartoons and so I shouldn't be writing about them. But I'm trying to mend my ways, honest. To prove it, I'm going to say some really nice things about Shrek 2, which I finally got around to seeing a few days ago. What a marvelous, sensitive, funny...ung...guk...damn, my tongue always sticks to the roof of my mouth when I try to praise a DreamWorks film.

What the hell, let's face it, my critics are right. Stay out of my yard, boys and girls, because I'm a mean old man who hates cartoons and eats puppies and kittens for lunch. You can find proof positive by clicking here.

My site is only a little more than a year old, but I'm starting to feel like a dinosaur because it's not a blog, and blogs are clearly where the internet action is these days. I visit the animation blog Cartoon Brew several times a day, and other blogs, like Terry Teachout's, almost as often. A site like mine, where days or even weeks can pass without new postings, can try the patience of visitors who expect fresh meat daily.

And, in truth, blogs have a lot of virtues, especially in the way that they let the blogger call attention quickly and succinctly to developments his readers should know about. For example, I'm not sure when I'll get around to writing a full-scale review of the first volume of Fantagraphics Books' wonderful new Complete Peanuts, which reproduces all of Charles M. Schulz's strips from 1950-1952, but I don't want to let its publication pass without comment.

This is the way that great comic strips should be reprinted, as carefully and respectfully as other great works of literature, but without any suffocating academic pomposity. I've been gratified to see how well the first volume has been selling. I only wish that another exemplary Fantagraphic reprint series, of Walt Kelly's "Pogo"—in its best years the greatest of all American comic strips—were enjoying comparable commercial success.

So I'll be blogging here off and on (if that's not a contradiction in terms), as the urge strikes; and I hope you'll check in as the urge strikes.

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