"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 matterssuch
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
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
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 recognitiona commemorative stamp,
speeches in Congress, and so onthat 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
titleSchulz, 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 readersnot just by cutting the number of strips (which
newspaper executives would always love to do), but also by reproducing
those left at a readable sizeis 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
I haven't read the book, and don't intend to. I don't object to
"fictionalized biographies" in principleDisney himself
made any number of films, like the Davy Crockett TV shows, that
fall squarely in that categorybut 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
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 goldnevermind [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
pagethey used to be under Toon Zone's wingand 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'
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 animationdid
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
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 successfullythe 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:
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 Disneythere 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 stripas I've said before, the greatest
of them all, in my opinionfit 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 doif an
apology was in order, it should have been offered after the segment
was finishedbut 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 giftedand most exasperatingof
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 warmththink of
the typical festival program, or almost any offering of "experimental"
animationare 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
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
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
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 filmsand
I've expressed such reservations on this sitethey'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,
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 hellohe was the first person to give me
a job in animation, back in 1987and 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
Gardens. Visiting there, I understood what it was about Tivoli
that appealed to Walt Disney when he was planning his own pleasure
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
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
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
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
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 stripswere enjoying comparable commercial
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