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"What's New" Archives: August 2009

August 31, 2009:

I Probably Should Say Something...

Barks at Baltimore


August 30, 2009:

The Mystery of Donald Duck


August 28, 2009:

Lillian Disney Speaks

Déjà Vu All Over Again


August 27, 2009:

Classic Children's Comics (for Grownups, Too)

Walt in Ireland, Cont'd


August 20, 2009

Walt in Ireland


August 19, 2009

Home Again


August 31, 2009:

I Probably Should Say Something...

...about Disney's acquisition of Marvel Entertainment, as reported today in the New York Times and elsewhere on the Web, but I don't know what it would be. Reading about this union of two enormous media companies, I felt as if I'd been hiking through the jungle and suddenly come upon two very large warthogs making love. Best to avert one's eyes and beat a hasty retreat.

Barks at Baltimore

I think a normal reaction, upon walking into the large room called "A Story in Four Colors" at Geppi's Entertainment Museum in Baltimore, can only be to conclude that Steve Geppi must own the most astonishing comic-book collection in the world. The handsome cases on the walls are filled with hundreds of comic books—some of them extremely rare, especially when so well preserved—along with huge quantities of pulp magazines and Big Little Books. An amazing sight.

GEM logoPhyllis and I visited GEM, as it's called, on August 1, near the end of our three-week stay in the Washington, D.C., area. The immediate occasion for our visit was a "Carl Barks Retrospective," an exhibition of Barks's paintings and drawings, but I'd been wanting to visit the museum for some time. Steve Geppi is now the owner of Diamond Comic Distributors, the largest comic-book distributor in the English-speaking world, but he started with a basement shop, and it was there that I met him about thirty years ago, when I was tracking down stories to be reprinted in A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics.

Martin Williams and I needed a clean copy of the first page of the first Superman story, in Action Comics No. 1, and as it turned out, Steve owned that comic book. I drove to Baltimore, and Steve and I went together to a photo lab, where that crucial page was photographed with the comic book never leaving Steve's watchful eye. (He sold that copy later, I suppose, because the New York Times reported in 1996 that he had spent $61,900 for another copy of Action No. 1.) I saw Steve again in 1989, when I wrote a story about him for the magazine I was working for; you can read that story at this link. He had five stores by then, but Diamond was already by far the major part of his operations.

Twenty years later—and three years after GEM opened—things haven't worked out as well for Steve as my 1989 story suggested they might. His various operations, the museum especially, have been staggering under debt. GEM is housed on the second floor of Camden Station, a historic railroad station next to the Orioles stadium at Camden Yards (a "sports legends" museum occupies the first floor), and it went for months last year without paying its rent and utility bills, running up a tab of $700,000 before reaching a settlement with its landlord, the Maryland Stadium Authority.

I can believe GEM has been struggling. The Saturday that Phyllis and I visited was an Orioles game day, and admission to GEM was only a dollar. The Orioles (Geppi is a minority owner) are a miserable team this year, but their opponent on August 1 was the mighty Boston Red Sox, and the downtown streets were filled with fans. Very few of them were finding their way to GEM that afternoon.

One problem, I think, is that GEM has been promoted as an "entertainment museum," which has meant in practice that it lacks focus. At heart it is, and should be, a comic-book museum, with lots of rare comics on display along with merchandise based either on the comic books themselves or on the movies, TV shows, and comic strips that spawned the comic books. (I hoped to see the three-dimensional cardboard figures of the Captain Marvel Family that I remember assembling when I was a kid; no such luck.) Instead, there's a constant pretense, outside that one large room called "A Story in Four Colors," that the museum really isn't about comic books, but about "entertainment." That turns out a very woolly concept, however handsomely the thousands of pop-culture artifacts are displayed. Perhaps the Maryland Stadium Authority bristled at the thought of a unabashed comic-book museum, but if so, I wish Geppi had found someplace else to display his treasures.

Oh, yes, the Barks exhibit. To see it, you have to pay an extra five dollars, and you're escorted to the third floor of Camden Station by a staff member, on an elevator. She waits while you wander through an "exhibit" that looks for all the world like a dealer's inventory, hung on walls and room dividers with a minimum of labeling or documentation of any kind. The museum has a room on its main floor devoted to special exhibitions (on The Wizard of Oz, when we were there), but there was no such space set aside for Barks. Geppi himself contributed many of the paintings on display—he probably owns the largest collection of Barks paintings—along with another collector, Kerby Confer.

I've made no secret about my coolness toward Barks's paintings, but I could see in GEM's exhibit a missed opportunity to make a case for them. The paintings got better as Barks grew more skillful in his use of color (he mastered color slowly, for understandable reasons, since he worked only in black and white for many years), and his paintings set in Uncle Scrooge's money bin, dominated by gold tones, actually made me smile. Who knows how broad my smile might have grown if the drawings and paintings had been organized to show how Barks's work had evolved—if, that is, the exhibit had been a real exhibit.

But it wasn't one. Before the exhibit opened in July, Geppi's "Scoop" Web newsletter noted that GEM would "host a sale of Barks originals, lithographs, statues and Barks-themed items" through another Geppi enterprise, Diamond Internal Galleries, during the retrospective. Earlier this month, "Scoop" followed up with an item headlined "Sale Details of Barks Paintings Unveiled," listing dozens of items at prices ranging up to half a million dollars. I can't say if all of the items on that list are hanging in GEM's exhibit, but I'm sure that many of them are. In other words, the exhibit appears to be nothing more than an effort to stir up buying interest among collectors.

So: should you visit the Barks exhibit, or, for that matter, GEM itself? Certainly, if you care about Barks or about the American comic book; and you should go soon. The Barks exhibit closes September 8, and there's no telling how long the museum itself can survive in today's economic climate.

While I'm at it, let me recommend another "entertainment museum" that is far more chaotic and cluttered than GEM, but is, for my money, more fun: John Fawcett's Antique Toy Museum in Waldoboro, Maine.

August 30, 2009:

The Mystery of Donald Duck

As I've plunged deeper into reading old comic books, I've been thinking more and more about the Donald Duck of Carl Barks's stories. Donald in Barks's best years differed not only from the dyspeptic Donald on the screen, he also differed from one story of Barks's to the next. He was preternaturally competent in one, a hopeless klutz in another, a mature parent in one, a peevish rival to his nephews in another.

Walt Disney's Comics June 1949In comic books with other characters published around the same time as Barks's, there was often the suggestion that the stories were occurring in something like the order in which they were published; that was also very much the case where adventure comic strips were concerned, since one story usually segued into another. But the chronological sense in the duck stories was very loose; almost never did a story contain a reference to events in another story. Everything was in flux. The nephews changed from story to story, too, sometimes wise beyond their years, at other times childish and mean. The ducks' external circumstances also changed as a story required—sometimes they lived in what was unmistakably southern California, other times they spent the winter up to their necks in snow.

A lot of comic books in Barks's heyday, "funny animals" especially, maintained only the loosest connections from one story to another. But there was in Barks's stories something that was missing from almost all the superficially similar others: a powerful core of emotional continuity. Barks's Donald always remains a plausible individual—and a vivid literary creation—through all the radical changes in his circumstances and even his personal traits. His mutations made him more real, not less, because they made him more like us: we also remain fundamentally the same despite what may be tremendous changes in our surroundings and our habits.

I've been trying to think of comparable characters outside comic books, and I'm coming up dry. Sherlock Holmes? Samuel Pickwick? Tarzan? Any one of a host of private eyes? The authors of the stories with those characters took for granted the need for the kind of consistency that Barks never bothered with, and their characters were almost always shallower than Barks's Donald Duck.

Has any literary critic ever written about such a character, or the possibility of such a character? I have a fair number of books of literary criticism on my shelves, and I've been dipping into them in the hope of finding passages that would be a good launching pad for ruminations of my own, but so far no luck. There are many discussions of character, and of characters, but none about the kind of character that Barks created in Donald. I'd welcome your suggestions for further reading.


From Bill Peckmann: It's great when you write about Carl Barks, nobody does it better. One of the things I remember from the 50's is the wonderful anticipation of waiting for the next "Duck" book to come out, and that anticipation was always stronger with the Barks books than any of the other great comic books of that time. If this is of any interest to you, here are three series authors that as a so-called grown-up I look forward to with the same kind of "kid" anticipation because the characters are going to be up to something that will absolutely not disappoint:

a) Reginald Hill's Dalziel & Pascoe mystery series.

b) Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano mystery series.

c) The late Patrick O'Brian's Capt. Jack Aubrey & Stephen Maturin seafaring series.

I believe the above authors were and are to their craft that Carl was to his.

MB replies: Of the three series Bill mentions, I'm slightly acquainted only with O'Brian's (I've just read The Fortune of War), which is admirable but I'm not sure has much in common with Barks's stories. O'Brian, from what I know of his series, tells one very long, continuous story, with an eye toward internal consistency from book to book, and that's not at all what Barks did. I think they were somewhat alike, though, in their appetite for research and the authentic-seeming detail.

Incidentally, if you haven't visited Michael Sporn's remarkable blog recently—and you should have—there's a new good reason to do so, in the form of dozens of scans of beautiful Disney model sheets from Bill Peckmann's collection. You might start with the sheets for the "Pastoral" section of Fantasia.

From Mark Mayerson: I wonder if you're looking in the wrong place for antecedents to Barks's Donald.  Rather than look for characters who existed in print, I think you should be looking at movies.

Barks was certainly immersed in the shorts being made at Disney prior to starting work in comics, and I have to believe that he was familiar with live-action features, if only because many were screened at the Disney studio. Movie-going was such a common activity in the 1930s that I would guess that Barks would have gone to see films outside of work.

It strikes me that Donald is similar to James Cagney or Clark Gable in that their personalities and expertise changed from role to role. There's a core to their personalities, but they took on different occupations, moral codes and ways of behaving depending upon the specific part. Barks may have thought of Donald and his supporting cast in much the same way, bending them in various directions for the sake of the story he wanted to tell.

Just as a movie audience built up an impression of a star based on a variety of roles, we have our impression of Donald because of the range of his behavior over many stories. Live action shorts stars of the '30s (Laurel and Hardy, the Stooges), varied their circumstances and occupations, but kept their personalities consistent. Stars of cartoon shorts followed that lead (which dates back to the 1910s in film) and maybe this is why stars of comedy and cartoon shorts were not as satisfying in features (or didn't make them at all).

Shorts stars like Chaplin and Lloyd had to re-invent themselves to a degree for features, adding more humanity to their characters in order to hold an audience's attention for the additional running time. If Barks was aware of this or thought of Donald and company as actors he was casting in a given story, it makes sense that he took the approach he did.

MB replies: Barks certainly saw and was influenced by Hollywood movies (I think immediately of the wonderful 1948 story "Sheriff of Bullet Valley," with its tongue-in-cheek invocation of low-budget westerns), but I doubt that any of the examples Mark cites can be made to serve as analogues to what Barks did.

Great Hollywood stars like Gable and Cagney (and Bogart and Wayne and on and on) certainly put aspects of their own personalities to work on the screen, but they were always playing characters who were by no means identical with themselves. Their personalities, like their physical appearance, imposed limits on the roles they could play, but they still were playing roles. Donald Duck in Barks's stories is, however, always Donald Duck; it's just that what is involved in being Donald Duck differs a lot from story to story.

Likewise, it's certainly true that shorts stars like Laurel and Hardy maintained consistent screen personalities through a wide range of circumstances and occupations, but that was exactly my point about Barks's Donald: I don't find that kind of consistency in Barks's stories. What is so strange and fascinating, I think, is that the stories are better for its absence. I wish I could think of anyone else, in any medium, who accomplished something similar.

In the following message, Thad Komorowski cites one of Mark Mayerson's essays from his Web site, which is a consistently valuable source of opinion and information. The only problem is that much of what Mark writes demands a more thoughtful response than the Web seems to allow; but that problem is the Web's, not Mark's.

From Thad Komorowski: I am taking a lot of literary studies courses this semester in college, so this topic is of great interest to me. I think the only chance of discovering any kind of continuity like you describe (very accurately) with Carl Barks's Donald is looking at certain authors and finding the same character types reoccur throughout their bodies of work. The same with certain live-action film directors (Mark Mayerson wrote about this topic, laying out the differences between the John Waynes of John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Wayne himself).  My guess is that you're not going to find another Barks Donald, simply because other authors who reuse the same characters aren't nearly as good as Barks.

From Dana Gabbard: I appreciate your ruminations on Donald. My own thoughts over the years have been about what an incredibly rich character he is in the stories Barks did.

I doubt you will find any literary analysis that deals with that which you speak of.

I'd suggest in your new book the hook to discuss Donald is the very absence of continuity of the superficial kind, and how this differs from classic characters of the sort you mention. The old boy understood what mattered, and ignored needless details. What made the artwork have a sense of being real, the selection of the right details etc., is what also made the characters work and be so damn vivid.

In Cark Barks and the Art of the Comic Book you end up saying the solution to the mystery of Barks' leap from what he was to what he became is that somehow comics unlocked insights and possibilities which dry biographical details alone cannot explain. It is the very definition of a genius, which in my view Carl Barks was.

The closest to what you seek I am aware of is the detective Ellery Queen, whose depiction varied to a great extent over the years.   " ... so striking are the differences between the early and later 'Ellery Queen' characters that Julian Symons advanced the theory that there were two 'Ellery Queens'—an older and younger brother." But that still isn't quite what you are getting at.   Barks built Donald as an everyman. And poured into his depiction all the years Barks spent as an everyman—learning through the school of hard knocks.   Most creators would just create a new character for a new story if they wanted to depict a certain set of characteristics, especially when doing separate scripts for plays and films. Radio and TV series have set characters, but generally I don't believe exhibit the characteristics you are contemplating. Maybe in the end it all boils down to what a unique creator Carl Barks was.

From Jim Korkis: Walt was famous for thinking and promoting Mickey Mouse as a real character who only performed in films, which is why it is Steamboat Willie and not Steamboat Mickey.  While he may play a character similar to himself, working in films was just his day job.  He had a private life.  He even had his own listing in the Acting Directory that studios used to find actors to hire. (Walt was listed as his agent.)

Maybe because of his experience at the Disney Studios, Barks had a similar philosophy.  Donald had a real life and his job was to appear in the comic book stories. It might mirror his real life and his real attitudes but he was just performing in whatever story came his way.  Just like sitcoms like the Burns and Allen show where they interacted with some of the same people and same situations they did in their real life but it was obvious that the half hour episode was just a story.

I know many people believe that the Barks stories are the only "true" recounting of his life (like Don Rosa, who based many of his stories on Barks) but there were lots and lots of other stories in the comics about Donald where he acted much differently than the Barks versions.  Maybe his being an actor explains it....it was just that Barks often came closer to depicting Donald's actual life than others did. 

MB replies: Actually, the cartoon's title was probably Steamboat Willie because otherwise the reference to "Steamboat Bill" (song) and Steamboat Bill Jr. (Keaton feature) would have been easier to miss.

The cartoon-character-as-actor idea has always struck me as a dodge. But it connects to a larger question: what is a cartoon character, anyway? When we speak of Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck or Bugs Bunny, what exactly are we talking about? Is a character primarily a design? But if so, how does that idea apply to a character like Lantz's Andy Panda, whose appearance in movies and comic books changed so radically from year to year that only Andy's name in the titles kept him recognizable? Is a character thus basically a trademarked name, attached to whatever version of the character looked good that week?

Maybe it was part of Barks's genius that he recognized how blurry the idea of a cartoon character really was. He replaced that blur with crisp detail that could vary a great deal from story to story because there was no rigid standard he would be measured against. (He did shorten Donald's beak, to match the screen Donald's appearance, but no one from Disney ordered him to do so.)

[Posted August 31, 2009]

From Bill Peckmann: If you do get into the O'Brian series [see Bill's message above], I believe you'll find Barksian touches there, because one book is high seas adventure, the next a mystery, a comedy of manners, a courtroom drama...., all done with just the right amount of humor. All of this adds up to a wonderfully long saga that's peopled with folks you want to spend time with. If you get hooked, they should be read in order. 

From Alessandro King: I very much enjoyed your posting on the topic of Barks' Donald.  I agree with you that he is a unique figure in literature. I've always felt that this was due to Barks' genre mastery. Like Donald and Scrooge, Sherlock Holmes also encountered a variety of settings and characters, but Conan Doyle only had to depict him in detective stories.  Barks, however, had to consistently bounce back and forth between ten-page domestic comedies and twenty to thirty-two page adventure stories. The constant shift between tones forced the characters to show multiple sides and ultimately led to a unique complexity. I think that's why so many writers cite Barks as an important influence: he taught us just how much many emotional places characters can go. Look at the pathos that accompanies the end of "Gladstone's Terrible Secret" [in which Gladstone confesses, with plentiful tears, that he once actually worked]. Other children's authors can make you cry, sure, but how many can make you feel such an odd cocktail of distaste and pity?

And as for continuity, I don't know if your book is going to cover this, but the only instance I can think of where a story references a previous one is on the third page of "The Money Champ."

MB replies: I need to check my own bibliography to be sure, but I believe Alessandro is right, and the only Barks story that refers to an earlier one is indeed "The Money Champ," in Uncle Scrooge No. 27, Sept.-Nov. 1959; that story refers unmistakably to The Second-Richest Duck," in Uncle Scrooge No. 15, Sept.-Nov. 1956.

From Thad Komorowski: In Walt Disney's Comics & Stories No. 62, November 1945, Barks's story has Donald referring to the reward that the nephews received for catching a burglar "last month," in the previous issue's story. Like the rest of Barks's work, though, the story still stands on its own just fine, without one's needing any prior knowledge to understand what was going on. Had the story been done a few years later, he'd have just had the nephews win the money from some unseen Woodchucks expedition.

From Vincent Alexander: As for your question about what characters other than Donald Duck have emotional continuity, I'm kind of drawing a blank here, but I might say Wile E. Coyote. In the Road Runner cartoons he's a desperate fanatic and in the Bugs Bunny cartoons he's a pompous narcissist, and yet both versions somehow feel like the same character.

[Posted September 1, 2009]

From Gunnar Andreassen: You have written a very interesting piece about The Mystery of Donald Duck. It really made the little grey cells work in my brain—as Hercule Poirot would have said. If he had helped us, he would certainly have solved the mystery. But in his absence, we must do our best to help solving it.

We have a comic-book character in the shape of a duck, but he is indeed a humanized duck or a man. As I see it, there might be three ways of viewing him:

1. As a human with a multi-faceted personality—like most of us. Since he appears in comic-book stories, his behaviour is exaggerated, and not plausible in a realistic way. Barks wants to make us laugh at his shortcomings and clumsiness—and when nemesis strikes because of his hubris: when he sees himself as the No. 1 expert in the world. But the question remains: Is he too unrealistic, even for a comic book character, with behaviour going from one extreme in one story to the opposite extreme in another ? Can he really be one person ?

2. He has a disorder of some kind, for example, a split personality: Dissociative identity disorder is a psychiatric diagnosis that describes a condition in which a single person displays multiple distinct identities or personalities (known as alter egos or alters), each with its own pattern of perceiving and interacting with the environment. The diagnosis requires that at least two personalities routinely take control of the individual's behavior with an associated memory loss that goes beyond normal forgetfulness; in addition, symptoms cannot be due to drug use or medical condition. From literature and film we have The Three Faces of Eve and Jekyll and Hyde, but in the latter the symptoms were caused by drug use.

There is a book by Professor Karl Miller: Doubles: Studies in Literary History. In Miller's book, duality means that the self is perceived as divided in two, who may be partners, rivals or enemies, they may complete, resemble or repel one another. I haven’t read it, but it might be of interest. Barks would probably have protested against this disorder theory. When it comes to Donald, it isn’t chiefly a case of good versus evil—but more about competence versus incompetence and maturity versus infantile behavior.

3. He is not one person but several persons in the shape of one duck. To me this seems to be the most probable theory. Barks had great freedom to write the stories he wanted as they were very seldom censored, but the stories were confined in the world of ducks—and the protagonist had to be Donald. The way he solved it, and to make it possible to write and draw more stories—which his income depended on—he put several persons into Donald.

To quote from an interview with Barks (Spring 1981): "I broadened his character out very much. Instead of making just a quarrelsome little guy out of him, I made a sympathetic character. He was sometimes a villain, and he was often a real good guy and at all times he was just a blundering person like the average human being, and I think that is one of the reasons people like the duck."

Another quote: "I always felt myself to be an unlucky person like Donald, who is a victim of so many circumstances. But there isn't a person in the United States who couldn't identify with him. He is everything, he is everybody; he makes the same mistakes that we all make."

Therefore Donald seems to be more than just one person.

Comparable characters outside comic books: The best examples I can come up with are the characters in the Moomin books by the great author and artist Tove Jansson.

Tove Marika Jansson (9 August 1914–27 June 2001) was a Finnish novelist, painter, professor of philosophy, illustrator, and comic strip author. She was the author of, among other works, the Moomin books. She wrote several books about the Moomin trolls—but she was also a comic strip artist and made a lot of stories about them in strip form. Her brother took over the strips after her. There have been stage productions of her work, a lot of films and TV series, and even a Moomin theme park in Finland. Jansson was—and still is—in premier league when it comes to children stories—together with the Swedish author Astrid Lindgren—and Carl Barks is not far from this league.

[Posted September 2, 2009]

From Gary Brown: Enjoyed your mini-essay on Carl Barks's treatment of Donald Duck's character. I would guess that there are a number of "Donalds"—as portrayed by Barks—that indeed fit the stories he wrote, even though they seemed out-of-time in some ways. Lazy Donald; Ambitious Donald; Helpless Donald; Tag-along Donald; and Clever Donald.

But your description of Barks's stories reminded me a lot of how Bob Bolling's Little Archie stories fit (or didn't fit) in the chronology of that character's books. Thirty-five of the first 37 issues were 25-cent "giants," so Bolling wrote a lot of stories (usually half or more of each issue). One story would be a typical Little Archie in Riverdale gag story, then there would be an adventure story, possibly a science fiction story, a battle with Mad Doctor Doom and Chester (in which Little Archie—"that little red-headed kid"—saves the world over and over again), a crime mystery, a nature story and a touching story about the human condition.

I asked Bolling once about the ever-changing topics of his stories, and he said he just wrote about what interested him at the time, something I think could be ascribed to Barks's writing. Bolling said he didn't want to do adventure stories all of the time, so he changed up, mostly so he wouldn't get bored. Of course, he also understood the formula that not only made Little Archie a success in the late 1950s, but had made Archie in general a popular comic book company.

When I questioned him about the reaction of his editor (Harry Shorten at the time), he said Shorten never said a word. He was left to his own devices. As long as he got his completed stories (written, pencilled and inked) in on time, he was in their good graces.

Also, unlike with Barks, page count was not a concern, Bolling said. He could write a 6-page story or a 9-page story or a 21-page story, however it came out. Because of the large size of the comic, they could easily fill in with one-page gags, puzzles or house ads.

Because the book was an unqualified success, I suspect that Shorten didn't want to mess with it. But it says a lot about allowing an artist/writer to his own devices, something I'm sure that Barks was allowed to do.

There also was the fact that both Bolling and Barks were writing on deadline. Bob told me there were times when he had a germ of a story idea, but couldn't work it out completely, so he set it aside until later and began working on something else.

As for literary characters who take on the same device, I'm drawing a blank. However, there are film characters who do this. Laurel and Hardy, for one. And expecially The Three Stooges. In one short, they are delivery men, but in another they are doctors, or in the military, or garbage men. The same two or three men playing different roles (although, I admit, with pretty much the same gags).

All in all, it's an interesting aspect of Barks' treatment of Donald, and one that contributed to his success.

MB replies: I'm going to have to read more Bolling. Fortunately, quite a few of his stories seem to be turning up on the Web.

As for the likes of Laurel and Hardy and the Three Stooges, it's true that they changed occupations freely, as Barks's Donald Duck did, but as characters they remained the same. My point is that Barks's Donald really didn't, at least not in the way that Laurel and Hardy and the Stooges did. Donald was, I might say, an infinitely subtle character whose creator repeatedly placed him in situations that were anything but subtle, with incomparable comedy the result. Subtlety is not a word I would ever associate with the Stooges, or even Laurel and Hardy.

From Russ Handelman: During the 1930s, Porky Pig often appeared with different personalities, or, rather as the same character at different ages. In some cartoons—including his first appearance in I Haven't Got a Hat, he's a schoolboy, and is sometimes depicted as living with parents, while in other cartoons at the same time he's an "adult" living independently and holding down various jobs.  Porky's "round, cute" appearance is essentially "ageless," making this inconsistent treatment of his character at different ages plausible.  Also Porky's personality, which is generally naive, optimistic and good-natured, makes him seem innocent and "childlike," even when he's depicted as an adult.

MB replies: Actually, something similar could be said about the animated version of Donald Duck, who varied in apparent age in his earliest cartoons (roughly speaking, those made before the nephews became a regular part of the cast). He's a very young schoolboy in Donald's Better Self (1938), for instance, but unmistakably adult in other cartoons made around the same time. But it seems to me there's nothing in such 1930s cartoons approaching the depth of characterization that Barks achieved; the gaps between the different versions of Porky Pig and the animated Donald were bridged by much more superficial means.

[Posted September 4, 2009]

From Merlin Haas: One reference to a previous Barks story comes in "The Status Seeker" from Uncle Scrooge No. 41, where Scrooge hides the candy-striped ruby in a bin of peppermints. The Beagle Boys make direct references to a previous occasion when Scrooge tried to trick them by casting gold in the form of corn ("All at Sea," Uncle Scrooge No. 31).  I remember being surprised when I first read the story way back in 1963 to the reference to a previous story, which I hadn't seen in a Disney comic before. Also, lest you think I have a great memory, I just remembered the candy-striped ruby story. I had to use your bibliography to get the cross-reference.

MB replies: Obviously, considering that I couldn't remember more than one such cross-reference, I need to go back and spend some time with that bibliography myself!

[Posted September 5, 2009]

From Akshay Patki: Gunnar Andreassen has it right in suggestion No.1. Donald is a  multi-faceted caricature of a multi-faceted human being. We could, in fact,  describe the multi-faceted human everyman of which Donald is a caricature. The results would not  describe Donald; they would lack the whimsy and playfulness of  Barks. The circumstances establish which of Donald's traits will manifest themselves most strongly. This confuses us, since we expect our caricatures to exhibit a single, exaggerated trait only. So with hindsight, we wonder why Donald doesn't seem like caricatures of different persons, but of a single person.

I think the continuity puzzle can be solved by looking at how heroic traits of Donald appear in the slapstick stories, only to backfire, and how his comic traits appear in the adventure stories for some slapstick. There are enough stories which show a different, overlapping sample of his traits to establish a sense that we are dealing with a single personality. This effect is superfluous in novels and movies, since there is enough time within a single novel or (good) movie to establish a character. The analogues to this kind of character development might be found in good TV serials. I don't watch TV, however, so I cannot help you there. Perhaps some highly praised comedy or comic adventure series?

I had to think a bit about analogous characters. Perhaps you should check out the Panchatantra, a classic Indian collection of animal fables. It is, in fact, the ultimate source of many well-known fables in the West. It includes a sharp satire of human society and some complex, highly articulate animals. Sadly, when it  traveled to Persia it lost any amoralism: the authorities insisted that evil be punished  and good rewarded. Entering Christendom meant losing any sexual innuendo. By the time  the stories enter de la Fontaine, we end up with moralistic tales to lecture children  with! So it goes... Perhaps Reynard the Fox is a western analogue?

Human beings of which Donald is a caricature: I recall some of  Dickens' supporting characters being from the lower classes, being flawed and  stereotyped, being used and abused for comic relief, but showing fierce bravery and loyalty  when called upon. Are they Donald-like, although human, rather than "ducks"?

[Posted September 12, 2009] 

August 28, 2009:


Lillian Disney Speaks

Walt Disney's wife, Lillian Bounds Disney, was often photographed at the side of her famous and highly visible husband, but she rarely if ever spoke before a movie or video camera during his lifetime. In 1986, though, twenty years after Walt's death, she accepted for him when he was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame. Video of that occasion has turned up on YouTube; thanks to Gunnar Andreassen for alerting me to it.

Lillian was close to ninety at the time, but she seems in her very brief remarks to be strong and self-assured, as I'm sure she had to be, to have been married for more than forty years to a man who was very much that sort of person. If there was a secret to what was from all appearances a highly successful marriage (as evidenced by, among other things, Walt's always wanting her to travel with him), it may have been that she was both devoted to her husband and not afraid to stand up to him, as we know she did on any number of occasions.

Unfortunately, Lillian's brief appearance at the podium is preceded by Dick Van Dyke's interminable summary of Walt's career, which is packed with even more howlers than are usual on such occasions.

Déjà Vu All Over Again

I heard this from the visitor who calls himself Rubi-kun:

Is it just me, or does it seem that you spend a lot more time on your negative opinions than your positive ones? Coraline and Sita Sings the Blues, both quality films worthy of serious discussion,  receive just a blog post or two yet you write whole essays on the  movies you didn't like. When was the last time you wrote an essay on  a film you enjoyed? Ratatouille? Think of future readers of your site: they're probably not going to search through a bunch of blog entries but they will be looking at your essays, and without seeing what you like, they're just going to look at you as a bitter old man who likes hardly anything.

Well, I am a bitter old man, as the calendar and the mirror insist on reminding me; I intend to write more about Sita; and I have Google at the top of my home page so that anyone who's curious can find out quickly what I've written about any subject. As on many previous occasions, I'm baffled by the suggestion that I have a duty of some kind to be "positive" rather than "negative." The obligation I feel to the people who visit this site is to figure out what I really think about a given film—or book, or museum exhibit, or whatever—and then to say what I think as clearly and succinctly as possible. It really doesn't matter to me if the result is "positive" or "negative" in tone. It does matter to some people, though, evidently because they think that being "positive," however mindlessly, is integral to being a fan..

In fact, I go out of my way not to see and review some films that I will probably not like, or may dislike for the wrong reasons. I disliked the first Ice Age, for example, and I've not seen or written about the two sequels. I very much want to see Miyazaki's Ponyo, but I much prefer seeing his films with Japanese soundtracks and English subtitles. I'm inclined to wait for the Blu-ray rather than see Ponyo with an English soundtrack and possibly come away with a skewed impression of what Miyazaki has done.

Most of the Disney and DreamWorks features command so much attention from fans and the public at large that seeing them becomes all but irresistible, and having seen them, I usually want to say something about them. I'm close to drawing the line with The Princess and the Frog, though.

Princes and the Frog posterIt's risky to draw conclusions based on just a trailer (which I saw on the big screen last weekend) and a short making-of clip on Cartoon Brew, but Princess so far looks to share in all the shortcomings of Treasure Planet, the previous John Musker-Ron Clements feature for Disney, with a few new ones thrown into the pot. I've just re-read my review of Treasure Planet, which I posted here more than six years ago, and I have to wonder: If, as seems increasingly likely, Princess offers much more of the same—the clumsy manipulation of formulas, the coy, self-conscious character animation, and all the rest—will there be any point in writing about it, or even wasting ten bucks on seeing it? How much substance can there be in a movie with a villain who is, as we know from the Cartoon Brew clip, a song-and-dance man straight out of an overcharged retro-Broadway production number? (Try to imagine Stromboli breaking into a tap dance, or the Queen in Snow White chortling away in song about what a mean bitch she is. Hard to do, isn't it?)

What's sad, and a little scary, about today's Disney people is that they apparently think they're doing really good work. That may account for the indignant hostility I've encountered on the few occasions in recent years when I've crossed paths with someone from Disney feature animation, since my skepticism about recent Disney features is hardly a secret. The people at studios like DreamWorks and Blue Sky seem to know they're making popcorn movies, but the Disney people must believe they're doing something much, much better. I'm afraid the poor souls think they're walking in the footsteps of Frank and Ollie and Milt and the other great ones, when actually they're living and working on the Planet of the Apes.


From Vincent Alexander: I share your reservations about The Princess and the Frog. Just to set the record straight, I'm a big fan of the Disney features released in the '90s. I think the best of them (Aladdin and The Lion King especially) rank as some of the greatest animated films ever made. Even though the filmmakers relied on formulas a lot, they seemed to be trying to push the envelope and make the best movies they could. For instance, Aladdin pushed the comedy content farther than any Disney movie had before, Hunchback brought in some darker and more religious elements to the story, Tarzan abandoned the Broadway-style songs and focused on adventure, etc. Whether or not all of these experiments succeeded, at least they were trying some new things. It never felt, to me at least, that they were rehashing the same movie over and over again.

Still, The Princess and the Frog worries me. I've seen the trailer several times, and it always makes me squirm. The comedy lines are serviceable but not particularly funny, the supporting characters look silly in a cheesy and predictable way, and the whole thing feels...mediocre, somehow. There certainly doesn't seem to be anything original about it. I also don't like that they changed the lead character's name from Maddy to Tiana just because it was starting a controversy (they probably changed more than just her name, too). It seems to me that if you sincerely cared about your own movie, you wouldn't change important details at the request of people who haven't seen the film yet and have no idea what they're talking about. When you're constantly worrying about political correctness, you're more likely to come up with a safe movie than a good movie.

I'm not saying this to be negative—I really want to like this movie, and I'm still hoping that I will—but they're going to have to give us something fresh and original to be the great "return to traditional animation" that it's supposed to be. If they just reheat old ideas, it's not going to do the trick.

From George Taylor: The comment about you being a bitter old man made me laugh out loud. People that know animation and animation critics/writers/enthusiasts know who Michael Barrier is. We respect what you write and we value your opinion. Personally, I appreciate the insight that you bring—you make me question my opinions about animation to the point that I can appreciate the arguments from all sides. I can safely proclaim that I have learned more about animation from you, John Canemaker, Michael Sporn, Hans Perk and my very good friend Jeff Pepper, than from all of the other Disney-related blogs combined! I want to thank you for being you and for all of the amazing writing that you have done.

One last question: do you prefer to be called bitter or a curmudgeon?

MB replies: "Curmudgeon," definitely. George Taylor is, by the way, the co-proprietor (with Jeff Pepper) of 2719 Hyperion, one of the very best Disney-related sites; I won't call it a "Disney fan site," because there's so much more substance to what George and Jeff post than there is at the usual Disney fan site. 2719 Hyperion is also the best-looking Disney site that I know of, including those maintained by the company itself.

From Thad Komorowski: I hate to say it, but Rubi-Kun has a point. A lot of your reviews/critiques/whatever are mostly negative. But that goes without saying. Any serious critic knows that there's more bad work than good. Even the fanboys whine and throw stones at Leonard Maltin when he pans movies they like (I've read the attacks!). But, we all need to learn to try and not be too cranky, especially when it's over little things, or we'll alienate even more regular readers (meaning, in your case, smart people). I mean, is it necessary to remind people that you think Darby O' Gill, a movie I don't think is getting hailed as a masterwork of any kind, is a "frustrating disappointment"?  (Personally, I find it to be an engagingly fun movie.)  I'm guilty of doing this myself of course. Snark and casual dismissal are forbidden fruits we should reserve for special occasions.

But hey, why not talk about the Ottawa Festival poster instead?  Hell,  you could get some revenue through website traffic by attention whoring and being a hypocrite.

MB replies: Actually, a lot of people (Leonard Maltin, for one) seem to take for granted that Darby O'Gill is a masterwork, an underappreciated one, and I think there's something to be said for raising a dissenting voice occasionally. Here's what I wrote in my notes when I watched Darby for a second time while writing The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney: "This is, alas, a limp film, lacking the narrative tension required to make it more than quaint and cosy. ...What's lacking is a sense of supernatural power and danger; the leprechauns are too cute, when they should be menacing as well as charming. Here's another case where Disney's reliance on meat-and-potatoes directors undercut him."

The director was Robert Stevenson, and it was evidently his skill in meeting technical challenges that recommended him for the assignment. The effects are awfully good, for the most part. and the illusion that Darby is onscreen with a tiny leprechaun highly persuasive. Another reason to buy the DVD, in addition to Walt's performance in "I Captured the King of the Leprechauns," is for an "extra" in which the illusions are explained. But there's little more to be said for Stevenson as a director, here or elsewhere; John Ford he wasn't, and when I want to see a charming Irish fantasy film, I'll turn to The Quiet Man rather than Darby O'Gill.

I've been tempted to say something here about the furor at Cartoon Brew over the Ottawa festival poster, but I didn't want to sound too jealous of all that website traffic. Just for the record: The poster's artistic merits aside, it seems to me to not do its job, because it calls attention to itself rather than to the festival; and Amid Amidi's personal attack on that fine cartoonist Pete Emslie was far more objectionable than Emslie's own intemperate remarks about the poster itself.

[Posted August 29, 2009]

From John Morgan: Just a quick note to say that folks like Rubi-kun really put a kink in my colon. They themselves will eat up any product placed in front of them, and if anybody else reacts to the product with anything less than unreserved praise, the Rubi-kuns label them as mean, egotistical, stuck-up, bitter, and so on. They absolutely hate to have their herd-think questioned, even indirectly.

From Ricardo Cantoral: I think you are particularly under heavy ridicule because you are one of the very few that seriously critique animation and don't demand heavy traffic in readers. We all know the names, and they usually come off as obessive, hip sycophants for one historical animation figure or simply fans who shamelessly plug work from the incompetent or formulaic studios they work for. Also, of course, as Thad said there are the obessive fanboys who are too blinded by their own nostalgia, or some hip, sterotypical anime show, to differentiate between what is good and bad artwork. God forbid you say something in the negative about Tiny Toons or Miyazaki on the Toon Zone Forums, you'll be torn to pieces.

[Posted August 30, 2009]

From Dan Briney: I must confess that lately, where art and culture are concerned. I've been feeling very much the "bitter old man" you claim to be. This disturbs me, as I likely have a number of decades left to watch our dreary, angry, and creatively bankrupt culture continue to dissolve into postmodern sludge. So, it improved my mood not at all to click through the link to the Princess and the Frog clip, only to see Prince Eric rubbing elbows with Grand Vizier Jafar, with another obnoxious "retro-Broadway" number on the verge of bubbling up. This is, to put it delicately, the Same. Old. Shit. And if the clip depressed me, the comments over at Cartoon Brew made me positively suicidal. It's an "animation orgasm." We've got to "support the film." Why, exactly? Is it the duty of the animation enthusiast to "support" Princess and the Frog merely because it exists? What is the point of Disney's return to traditional animation if it's just going to wallow forever in 1989? (Even the poster seems to have been lifted from the Little Mermaid teaser poster!) Why doesn't Disney just re-release the '90s features over and over again? It would be a lot cheaper.

From "Rubi-kun": OK, I think I've been misunderstood here. I'm completely fine with  contrary opinions. I certainly don't eat anything placed in front of  me (if something looks particularly awful to me I shove it away if I  can). I always enjoy reading your negative assessments of films I  liked and (on the rare occasions they exist) positive assessments of  films I disliked and debating them. My point isn't that you shouldn't  hold your opinions (you certainly should hold them and discuss them),  but rather that it seems you spend more time discussing your negative  opinions than your positive ones. I'm not saying you don't like  enough, but rather that you have a tendency to skim over films you  like to instead write pages on films you dislike. Roger Ebert, one of  my favorite critics, made a mistake like this recently: he initially  decided to conclude his review of The Hurt Locker with a continuation  of a rant about Transformers 2. TF2 by all means looks like a  horrible movie and probably deserves every single critical pan it's  received (I have avoided seeing it myself), but there's a place for  ranting about Transformers and that place isn't at the conclusion of  another film's review. Ebert admitted it was a petty and distracting  conclusion and rewrote it to actually be about the movie on hand.

[Posted August 31, 2009]

From Roberto González Fernández: Though I posted a positive comment in Cartoon Brew when they showed that clip of Dr. Facilier, I'm not especially enchanted with what I've seen of The Princess and The Frog. Maybe I'm too generous, but I am almost convinced it will be decent enough to watch it at least once. I have my reservations about the acting, too. It's true that some of the scenes we see in the trailers have this artificial acting and unintentional off-model poses we saw in Treasure Planet, and I find this very strange since Disney has produced other movies in the last few years that didn't have those problems, like Lilo and Stitch or Emperor's New Groove. Even in Atlantis, the movements were maybe not so natural but the designs were frequently solid and the poses were never as awkward as some of those in The Princess. I'm thinking especially about one moment in the trailer where Tiana says "Just...one kiss," while doing a completely unnatural movement with her arm. It's neither a realistic movement nor a cartoony one. That seems to be one of the problems in that movie. While something like Aladdin seemed to find a comfortable style that combined human heroic characters and comic relief characters while keeping some caricaturized aspect in all the designs, Tiana seems to be a weird mixture of Coal Black and Belle from Beauty and the Beast. Maybe they were afraid to caricature due to political correctness. Or maybe it's just Disney's tendency. However, I'm pretty sure that the movie will not be a train wreck in terms of story, and it will probably be serviceable, just as Bolt was. Let's imagine for the sake of argument that the story is fantastic. I usually wonder how important the visuals really are. We, animation fanatics, are the people who give that a lot of relevance, since we have seen a lot and we know what's great. But I was thinking about '90s Disney. I have a problem with Beauty and the Beast in particular. I think its animation is full of problems like the ones I see in The Princess and The Frog, and that diminishes my interest in watching it frequently. I was, however, impressed by how well The Lion King still works when I watched it again the other day, especially since it wasn't my favourite back in the day. I remember liking Beauty and the Beast a lot more on the big screen, maybe because it was a new style at that moment or because I was younger. Thing is, how can I claim that Beauty is less of a classic than Lion King or Aladdin

Since this entry began with Rubi-Kun's comments about your "grumpiness," I would like to add that I do agree with him to a certain extent, mostly in that you often tend to center your reviews about one particular aspect of the movie you didn't like, often the animation. That's probably OK since yours in an animation blog, but sometimes you seem to forget that there are other aspects of the movie that work well for the audience. That's what I wanted to say with my previous comment about Up, too. I do agree with most of your criticisms to a certain extent, but I really liked the movie at the same time. You recognized that most of the elements could be used in a better story but even if you didn't like the story at it is, I think it's too extreme to say it will be an embarrassment to the people involved in future years. I usually don't enjoy action scenes in the average blockbuster movie but I thought they were entertaining here, and I'm not talking about technical achievements.

[Posted September 5, 2009]

August 27, 2009:

Classic Children's Comics (for Grownups, Too)

Toon TreasuryI've mentioned here a couple of times The Toon Treasury of Classic Children's Comics, the compilation assembled by Art Spiegelman and his wife, Françoise Mouly, with a little help from a crew of superannuated funny-animal comic-book readers, me among them. It has just been published by Abrams, and you can order a copy from amazon.com by clicking on this link. I heartily recommend that you do so. In this age of bloody, super-serious, never-ending graphic novels, it's a delight to pick up a book filled with mostly short, mostly very funny stories that parents can enjoy along with their young children.

This is a wonderful book, beautifully reproduced (I wish my own Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics had turned out half as well), and distinguished by a lineup of stories that range from certified classics—three duck stories by Carl Barks, loads of Walt Kelly and John Stanley, and cameos by Harvey Kurtzman, Basil Wolverton, Jack Cole, and Jules Feiffer at their most kid-friendly—to the intriguingly odd. You might be familiar with "Intellectual Amos" by André LeBlanc, and I'd certainly heard of it (it was a backup feature in the Spirit weekly), but I can't remember ever reading one of those stories.

There's also a sampling of what you might call middle-of-the-road kids' comics, the short, formula-flavored stories that DC and ACG turned out in enormous quantities in the '40s and '50s. I'm afraid I'll never warm up to Sheldon Mayer, or to Nutsy Squirrel, or the Fox and the Crow, or...but it's good to have a chance to revisit opinions that, in my case, have been locked in place for decades. There's even one story each for Dennis the Menace and Little Archie. The weight of the book is so clearly tilted toward really good stuff that I can't work up any indignation about the more questionable calls; and there are, after all, people who will buy the book because Little Archie is in it. (The Harvey comics are missing entirely, though—a source of frustration to some, I'm sure, but not to me.)

Spiegelman and Mouly have contributed an excellent introduction to their book, and there are lots of evocative reproductions of comic-book covers and ads and such, all serving very well to summon up a lost four-color world that remains far more real to me than much of my everyday life when I was a child. I struggle to remember the name and face of my fifth-grade teacher, but I can tell you exactly where I was when I bought the October 1952 issue of Walt Disney's Comics & Stories, with the wonderful Barks story about Donald Duck's "hypno-gun" (included in the new book). The Toon Treasury of Classic Children's Comics reminds me why it is not at all strange that my memories should have ordered themselves in that way.

There is, incidentally, one overlap with my Smithsonian Book: John Stanley's Little Lulu story, "Five Little Babies." Everyone involved want to avoid such duplication, but there seemed to be no other Lulu story that so perfectly exemplified Stanley's brilliance when he was working with that character.


From Jaime Weinman: I haven't seen the book, but I actually would have bought it if they had included much more Little Archie, since Bob Bolling is one of the greatest of all kids comics' writer-artists. But it looks like "It's Friendship" is the only one they included, and that may not even be Bolling despite the credit; if it is, it's certainly not up to his masterpieces like "The Long Walk" and "Caramel Has a Tale." It's good that they didn't leave Little Archie out altogether, but they may have once again made the mistake of thinking of it only as a formula series where Betty and Veronica fight about stuff. Which, of course, is a mistake that is often made about the great "big" Archie people like Frank Doyle and Harry Lucey. But it's even less applicable to Bolling, whose work is in its own different way as great as Barks or Stanley. I get a little excercised about this because I just wrote a big apologia pro Bob Bolling at this link.

[Posted August 28, 2009]

From Dan Briney: Re: Your posting on Classic Children's Comics (which is indeed an excellent book): I would like you to know that your Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics was the foundation of my knowledge of and love for classic comics, and that through it, as a child, I received my first exposure to the original Superman and Batman stories; Captain Marvel; Plastic Man; The Spirit; John Stanley's Little Lulu; and the comic-book version of Mad, along with a number of titles I would never have known of or thought to look at, such as Jingle Jangle Tales and E.C.'s "New Direction" books (represented, of course, by the unforgettable story "Master Race"). It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that Comic-Book Comics made a big difference in my life, and I still treasure it. These stories are all the more striking in their impact today, in the dreary culture in which comic books have been overwhelmed by awkward expressions of sex, violence, and politics as their readership has trended ever older and children are allowed fewer and fewer opportunities to be children. In an environment like this, it is my hope that as many kids as possible get the chance to read Spiegelman and Mouly's book just as I read yours, for these old children's comics are still extremely rich and engrossing, and of timeless value.

[Posted August 31, 2009]

Walt in Ireland, Cont'd

I haven't yet been able to pin down any dates or other details for those two photos taken in Ireland, but it seems increasingly likely that the top photo, at least, was taken in 1946. This link will take you to an update appended to the original item.

August 20, 2009:

Walt in Ireland

Walt in Ireland

With Walt in Ireland

From Tony Tracy, associate director of the Huston School of Film and Digital Media at the National University of Ireland, Galway, a couple of intriguing photos. They're housed at the National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin, but with no accompanying information. That's Walt Disney second from left in the top photo, but when, where, and under what circumstances was the photo taken?

Walt made what was probably his first visit to Ireland late in 1946, when he also visited London for the first time since the end of World War II. He made two or three more visits to Ireland after that, in connection with his extended visits to Europe during the filming of some of his live-action features in England. Judging from Walt's appearance, the top photo was taken during one of those later trips, I'd guess in the mid-1950s.

And then there's the lower photo, which is labeled as a "Disney" photo but certainly doesn't show Walt. Who is the man on the left? My first guess was Bill Walsh, but I'm not sure. I haven't located a photo of Lawrence Edward Watkin, who wrote many of the live-action Disney features, and I'm intrigued by the thought that it might be him. (For that matter, who is the man at the right? He also appears to be at the far left in the top photo.)

Walt Disney's MagazineWatkin wrote the screenplay for Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959), the one Disney feature actually set in Ireland, and he is also credited as the writer of "I Captured the King of the Leprechauns," shown as the May 29, 1959, episode of the weekly Disney TV show but really an hour-long trailer for Darby. Movie and TV show were both filmed in California, but Watkin supposedly spent three months in Ireland doing research before he wrote the screenplay, so he certainly could have been photographed there.

As I wrote in my survey of live-action Disney on DVD, the presence as an "extra" of "I Captured the King of the Leprechauns" is one of the best reasons for buying the DVD of Darby, the movie itself being, like so much live-action Disney, a frustrating disappointment. "I Captured" is agreeable blarney, though, especially because Walt himself is on the screen so much of the time, and as an actor rather than a host. Even though he is playing someone named "Walt Disney" who is making a wholly fanciful trip to Ireland in search of leprechauns, he actually seems in that role a little more like the real man than the genial fellow who introduced the show each week. For one thing, his famously independent eyebrows are on display, each shooting up and down without regard for the other's wishes.

A comparably tongue-in-cheek article under Walt's byline, with a slightly different title, "How I Met the King of the Leprechauns," appeared in the February 1959 issue of Walt Disney's Magazine (formerly the Mickey Mouse Club Magazine). That's the cover at right.

If you can provide any information about the two "mystery photos," please let me know.

Walt in DublinAn August 27 update: I suggested that the top photo was taken in the 1950s, judging from what seemed to be Walt's age in the photo, but now it seems more likely that it was taken in 1946, judging from the heavy coats Walt and his companions are wearing. I don't believe any of Walt's later visits to Ireland fell at a time of year when such heavy coats would have been needed. Gunnar Andreassen has pointed me toward another photo of Walt taken in Ireland in 1946, in Dublin on November 22, and certainly his clothing in the Dublin photo (at right) is highly similar to his clothing in the photo above.

Lawrence WatkinAs for the man on the left in the bottom photo, I'm sure now that it's Bill Walsh, who visited Ireland with the Disney family in 1951, during the shooting in England of The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men. Sharon Disney talks about Walsh and that trip to Ireland in her interview with Richad Hubler, on page 170 in the sixth volume of Didier Ghez's invaluable series of interview collections, Walt's People: Talking Disney with the Artists Who Knew Him . "They are probably at the Blarney Stone," Didier writes, "and that is definitely Bill Walsh on the left in the second photo."

I had suggested that the man now identified as Walsh might possibly be Lawrence Edward Watkin, the screenwriter for Darby O'Gill and the Little People and other Disney live-action features, since I had not been able to locate a photo of Watkin, but Are Myklebust has found one on the New York Public Library's Web site, and Watkin in that photo (left) bears no resemblance to the man in the photo above.

And speaking of Walt's People: Volume 8 has just been published, and I'm awaiting my contributor's copy. I'll let you know when it's available for order through amazon.com.


From Diane Disney Miller: I'm curious about your interest in dad in Ireland. They loved Ireland, and had some good friends there.You might try to follow up on them. Bertie McNally was the RKO rep there; dad was still releasing films through RKO when we first went there. Bertie was the son of a famous Irish tenor, Walter McNally. He and his charming, pretty wife Vogue became very good friends of my parents. Bertie's sister Joan Roughneen and her husband JP also were friends. We had a delightful lunch at their home with their five young sons that I'll never forget. They probably visited Ireland more than you think, because they took every opportunity to go there. Dad was very proud of his Irish heritage.  Bill Walsh was with us on the first trip. Dad had just sort of discovered Bill, and he was a lot of fun.  I've just been watching film of that trip in our museum.

MB replies: The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco opens to the public on October 1.

[Posted September 3, 2009]

August 19, 2009:

Home Again

I've actually been home for two weeks, but I accumulated a stack of paper about a foot high—mostly photocopies of comics- and animation-related documents and newspaper articles—during my five and a half weeks away, and I needed to get that stack under control before posting again.

DumboPhyllis and I spent about half our travel time in our old home town of Alexandria, Virginia, cat-sitting for our former next-door neighbors while they vacationed in Turkey. We put in a lot of museum-going while we were in the Washington area, sometimes encountering the subject matter of this site in unusual places —the Dumbo at the left, from the Disneyland ride, is on display at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History. I also spent seven productive days at the Library of Congress. But we did most of our actual traveling—and I did a lot of my research—on our way to Alexandria.

We drove in a grand loop that took us first through Tennessee and Kentucky and then into Ohio, where we spent two nights at Columbus and I spent a very busy day at the Cartoon Library and Museum at Ohio State University. Then it was on to Cleveland, to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (one of Phyllis's prime destinations) and dinner with our friend Daniel Goldmark, the ultimate authority on cartoon music.

We drove from Cleveland across upstate New York, pausing for a few hours in Rochester at the George Eastman House, the world-renowned photography museum and film repository. There I saw Alice's Spanish Guitar, the most elusive of the surviving Disney Alice Comedies, along with several other silent curiosities. Unfortunately, I ran out of time before I could see everything the curators had pulled for me, but it was only my first visit, and I hope there will be others.

We devoted most of the next day to the National Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, New York, and to our surprise we liked the "Ball Hall" better than we liked the "Rock Hall." We came away from the Rock Hall thinking it was a little too noisy, confusing, and cluttered. Visiting the Ball Hall, with its intelligently organized exhibits, confirmed that impression—even though, at this stage of my life, I'd much rather listen to Buddy Holly or Jefferson Airplane than suffer through four hot and sticky hours in a big-league stadium.

Diana Krall in concertWe spent three nights in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts, attending a couple of events at Tanglewood (where we heard one of our favorite performers, Diana Krall, in a terrific concert on the Fourth of July—that's Krall in the photo at right, you'll just have to take my word for it) and visiting local tourist spots, most notably the Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge. Rockwell and Walt Disney knew each other, and one of the Rockwell paintings on display at the museum is actually inscribed to Walt; the Disney family gave it to the museum after Walt's death. The museum is well worth a visit, whatever reservations one might feel about Rockwell as an artist. The claims the museum makes for him are more about his importance in American culture than his importance as a painter, and I think those claims are indisputable.

Then it was on to Boston, where we saw the great Titian-Tintoretto-Veronese exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts (it closed last weekend, unfortunately). I also spent a day at Harvard University, going through the comic-book-related papers of "Marge"—Marjorie Henderson Buell, the creator of Little Lulu—that are now housed at the Schlesinger Library. (There's an excellent survey of the "Marge" collection by Jennifer Gotwals in Hogan's Alley No. 16.) I saved an hour at the end of the day for a visit to Harvard's archives, so I could see what was there related to Walt Disney's visits to the campus. I found quite a lot, especially in contemporary newspaper accounts, and I'll be expanding my Essay page about Walt's 1938 visit to Harvard, when he received an honorary degree.

Ogunquit bagpiperAfter a few days in Ogunquit, Maine (where I photographed the practicing bagpiper at left), and a short visit with friends at their summer home on the Jersey shore, we finally wound up in Alexandria. While we were there we did make one day trip out of the Washington area, to Baltimore, for our first visit to Geppi's Entertainment Museum. The immediate occasion for our visit was a much-heralded Carl Barks exhibit, which turned out to be strange and disappointing; and the museum itself is a rather odd place. I'll probably have more to say later about both exhibit and museum.

I've been devoting much of my time lately to "golden age" comic books like Barks's, now that I'm getting deeper into work on a book about comic books. There's not much fun to be had in writing about contemporary Hollywood animation; the features are mostly bad—often very bad—and the industry as a whole seems to be overflowing with bile. But it has been an ever-increasing pleasure to spend time with comics creators like Barks, Walt Kelly, and John Stanley, to mention just three of the heroes of my new book. I'm sure I'll be thinking out loud about comic books on this site more and more often as I come closer to finishing that book.

For now, though, I'm planning to post quite a few items related to Walt Disney, the most reliably interesting of all the people I write about. If you care at all about Walt and his works, you'll inevitably be thinking about him more than usual over the next few weeks, because the Walt Disney Family Museum is scheduled to open at the Presidio in San Francisco on October 1. I have a substantial pile of Disney-related items I've wanted to post, and now seems like a great time to do it.


From Dan Briney: I was envious to read about your trip to the Eastman House, and intrigued by your description of Alice's Spanish Guitar as "the most elusive of the surviving Disney Alice Comedies." Is it truly the rarest of the Alices? Does Eastman House have the only known print? I'd love to know more, long having been curious about the survival status of many of these shorts. (My questions about surviving Oswalds seem to have been answered by the Disney Treasures release.) I sadly have to agree with you on contemporary Hollywood animation (or contemporary Hollywood anything, for that matter). I'm about at the point where I don't care to keep up with any of it anymore; the final straw for me was the cold, absurd, and inexplicably lionized Up. 3D animation has turned the medium into a great futility.

MB replies: Eastman House does indeed own the only copies of Alice's Spanish Guitar, and it supposedly is constrained by the donor's conditions from making prints or negatives available to anyone else. The film has been shown in Los Angeles under Eastman House's auspices, but seeing it usually requires a trip to Rochester (and an hourly fee for the use of a flatbed editor).

Alice (Margie Gay) is onscreen more in Alice's Spanish Guitar than in most Alice Comedies of its vintage (1926), but what makes the film really unusual is that the little girl is unmistakably the object of the cartoon villain's lust. Putrid Pete occasionally shows a yearning for Alice in other films, but I don't recall another one that lunges so wholeheartedly (and no doubt innocently) toward pedophilia.

[Posted August 26, 2009]