June 23, 2015:
June 19, 2015:
June 15, 2015:
What I'll Be Wearing at the Comic-Con
June 9, 2015:
June 8, 2015:
June 6, 2015:
June 23, 2015:
When Disneyland opened, sixty years ago next month, Western Printing & Lithographing Company sent a contingent of two dozen of its executives and their spouses, from different branches of the company and different cities—the home office at Racine, New York, Poughkeepsie, and Saint Louis. Photos of many of those people turned up in the August issue of The Westerner, the company's house organ. Western had a big stake in the success of the Disneyland— not only did it produce almost all of the books and other publications with the Disney characters, but it had bought a 13.79 percent stake in the park (which then operated as a separate company) when Walt Disney was desperately in need of money to finish it.
All thirty-two pages of the August Westerner were devoted to Disneyland and to Disney products, including the Dell comic books. You'll see below the pages with prominent mentions of the comic books or pictures of people who were closely involved with them. You'll find the names of Lloyd E. Smith and Robert S. Callender listed multiple times in the index for my book about the Dell comics, Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books, and, of course, you'll find people like Gene Autry and Rex Allen, or versions of them, in the comic books themselves.
To go to a larger version of each page, click on it.
Unidentified in The Westerner's caption for the lower photo on this page, but recognizable, are Edward Selzer, the head of Warner Bros. Cartoons, Inc., who is standing behind Rex Allen; John Burton, the Warner production manager, on the back row at the left, next to the dark-haired woman; and Chuck Jones, on the back row at the right, behind the man wearing glasses. Robert Callender is standing behind George Delacorte. As other people are identified I'll add their names here.
From Merlin Haas: Thanks very much for posting the pages from the Westerner, which obviously falls in the category of extremely obscure. I hadn't realized that Western had owned part of Disneyland when it opened. Do you know when they sold their share back to Disney, Inc.? It's also interesting to see the "imposing array of Dell comics at Disneyland Book Store." in the photos. I don't believe that Disney has sold comics at Disneyland or Disney World for many years (despite what would seem to be the perfect place for exposure). Any idea of how long comics were sold at the Disney parks?
MB replies: As I noted on page 278 of The Animated Man, Western sold its share of Disneyland back to Disney in 1957. I have no idea how long comic books were sold at the Disney parks, but I don't remember seeing any for sale on my first visit to Disneyland in 1969.
[Posted June 26, 2015]
June 19, 2015:
When Martin Williams and I co-edited A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics, we included four stories by Harvey Kurtzman, two from Mad and two from the EC war comics. After the book was published in 1982, I sent a copy to Kurtzman and got this thank-you note in return. (Which was more than I ever got from John Stanley, alas.)
Kurtzman has just become the subject of an imposing new biography by Bill Schelly, published by Fantagraphics. It's surely the most important biography of a cartoonist since David Michaelis's Schulz and Peanuts (2007), and it's a much better book. You can read my full review of Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created Mad and Revolutionized Humor in America on the Commentary page at this link.
I still have any number of good books to write about in my books backlog, including David Lesjak's Service with Character and, of course, John Canemaker's The Lost Notebook. I hope to clear away some of that backlog before I head west for the Comic-Con and other destinations.
June 15, 2015:
The artwork on this splendid neckpiece is a variation on Carl Barks's drawing for the cover of the first issue of Uncle Scrooge, from 1952. But you knew that. I know of nothing in my wardrobe better suited to the Eisner Awards ceremony. (Thanks for the tie, Patrick Garabedian.)
From John Richardson: The picture of the new tie reminded me: I never got to say – Congratulations on the Eisner nomination! You deserve it; the book deserves it. It's rare to find a writer who can analyze particular approaches to humor without sucking out the life. Your approach actually makes the humor richer, I'm finding. About the tie: considering the venue, I would’ve kind of expected you to wear a multi-colored foam costume, but I guess coat and tie will have its own kind of novelty.
[Posted June 19, 2015]
June 9, 2015:
Tomorrowland: Ever since I saw The Incredibles, I've approached any new film directed by Brad Bird, whether animated or live action, with great anticipation. Bird has earned the right to the benefit of any doubt. Unfortunately, while I was watching Tomorrowland, his new live-action feature for Disney, my doubts piled up as high as one of the futuristic spires in the movie itself.
Tomorrowland is hopelessly schematic; that is, Bird is not so much telling a story as laying out an argument. It's a cold, didactic film, sort of like one of Miyazaki's environmental fables but without the redeeming mystery and beauty (unless, that is, you find Bird's CGI city of the future beautiful rather than repellent, as I do). There are echoes in Tomorrowland of two earlier Bird films, The Iron Giant and The Incredibles, especially the former, but in neither did Bird have to work so hard to jam together the pieces of a fatally complicated plot. There is almost no opportunity, in this movie more than two hours long, for the audience to enjoy the characters' company; George Clooney in particular seems trapped in a claustrophobic role. Here as in many other respects the fault is beyond doubt Bird's, and the whole film his folly: I counted his name six times in the end credits, including as co-author of story and screenplay.
By the time I read those credits, I was alone in the theater; the other two people in the audience had long since departed.
Bird speaks now of returning to animation, and I hope he does. I hope too that he acquires the humility, after the weak performance of Tomorrowland, to work from someone else's good script, but that may be hoping for too much.
Chico and Rita: This is not a new movie—a Spanish-British co-production, it was a surprise nominee for the best animated feature Oscar in 2012—but it's available now, at little or no cost, on streaming services like amazon and Netflix. Milt Gray called it to my attention, and I'm glad he did. Here is what Milt said:
I love the movie because the story is so strong, involving characters we can really care about, and a lot of careful attention has been paid to the Cuban and American jazz music of the era from 1948 onward. The story carefully weaves itself through actual historical events.
Chico and Rita is not animated—it was shot in live action and then rotoscoped. But the live actors were quite expressive with their body gestures, and so the results are more pleasing than rotoscoped action usually is. Plus the drawings are not strict illustrations, as rotoscoped movies usually are—these drawings are a few steps removed from illustration, so they look and feel like cartoon characters. And the backgrounds are magnificent. They resemble Ira Turek’s backgrounds in Fritz the Cat, completely interpretive and hand drawn, but with rich detail that evokes a real atmosphere, and they are often moving in 3-D. But not like a Pixar movie—these backgrounds, even while moving in 3-D, always look hand drawn, right down to the individual brush strokes.
I discovered this movie almost by accident, on Netflix. Just as with the very different cartoon movie, Sita Sings the Blues, I thought I’d just look at five or ten minutes, but the story and the characters really hooked me and I was spellbound all the way to the end.
I watched Chico and Rita with two friends, and we all felt the same way. Highly recommended.
From Milt Gray: Regarding Chico and Rita, I bought the DVD from Amazon, and it includes a documentary of the making of the movie, and a very informative commentary that runs the length of the movie. The documentary shows us the actors who were filmed for the rotoscoping, who also sang and/or performed their own music in the movie. The voice/pianist for Chico was a Cuban jazz pianist in his 90s who died just before the completion of the movie. Some of the actor/voices of the incidental characters were the actual people who were involved in some of the historical events that were touched on in the story. The documentary also shows us some of the “animation" artists drawing on computers, tracing the live action footage, and shows the set-ups for rotoscoping the vehicles in the car chase scenes. And we see the key background artist drawing in painstaking detail. The commentary is also fascinating in its explanations of how carefully the music was selected and of the actual historic events that the movie’s story weaves through. Even if people can see the movie for free on Netflix, I highly recommend buying the DVD for the documentary and commentary.
[Posted June 12, 2015]
From Bob Fiore: It's been a year for avidly anticipated movies that disappoint. My feeling about Tomorrowland was I didn't want to go to the World of Tomorrow, I wanted to go to robot Keegan-Michael Key's toyshop.
The problem with this sort of thing is that the future envisioned by the New York World's Fair of 1939 and 1964 has arrived. The cell phone in your pocket has more capabilities than the ones they had on Star Trek. It's sort of like Chris Ware's Building Stories. At the beginning it's about a lovable woman in a loveless life. Halfway through, lightning strikes, she finds a fella, has a child. What she discovers is that whereas when you're pining away for love you imagine something that's bright and beautiful and unattainable, when you actually have it you find it's just life on Earth, with its small satisfactions and its petty oppressions. Here in the World of the Future general prosperity is distributed as broadly across the population as it's ever been in history, and the cost is it's making the world less inhabitable. I fear the young people of today are going to have the opportunity to be another Greatest Generation, God help them.
What's really behind pictures like Tomorrowland and Interstellar is a sentimental attachment to manned space exploration, which in practice is spending billions of dollars to send a privileged few to a wasteland. You can explore the solar system far more effectively if you leave the people behind. Other than that there are no concrete beliefs behind it. I'm reminded of a quote from William S. Burroughs: "To say the man who says the ship is sinking is a pessimist and the man who says the ship is not sinking is an optimist is not to say anything meaningful about the actual condition of the ship."
What's really absurd is the way the press is making Brad Bird out to be some kind of disciple of Ayn Rand. Ayn Rand was death on altruism, and altruism is what Brad Bird is all about. There's this weird subtext in The Incredibles, never made explicit, that superpowers make their recipients naturally altruistic. The villains are people who create their powers through their own efforts, by creating machines. This is a poor analogy for natural talent. Because we indulge talented people for the sake of their talent, they can be utter swine. They're allowed to do things the untalented masses would never get away with.
MB replies: Of the many odd things about Tomorrowland, one that struck me was the resemblance of the opening scenes, set at the World's Fair fifty years ago, to Disney TV shows of the same vintage (of which I saw a great many when I was writing The Animated Man). Not just through props, like the "Small World" figures, but in a more general atmosphere. Hugh Laurie aside, the people looked like Disney TV people—like smiling mannequins, that is—and the color had that early-color-TV look, kind of diluted, in contrast to the saturated color we see all the time now on HD TV shows. Other people, more familiar with cinematography, can better describe what I saw in those scenes, I'm sure. I wonder how much of that dated look was deliberate, how much an accidental by-product. I don't remember that Saving Mr. Banks made any similar effort to evoke the same period other than through period decor.
I don't see Ayn Rand in Bird's films, either.
[Posted June 13, 2015]
From John Richardson: Regarding Tomorrowland: it slowly disappointed me, not so much because of the disorganization—which I can forgive more easily—but because of the pessimism. It even had a mini-diatribe against dystopianism (delivered by the antagonist, confusingly), and still remained sort of dystopian-with-apologies. Instead of a “great big, beautiful tomorrow,” it was more like an “if we all pull together, we might simply survive a bit longer” kind of tomorrow. We know Brad Bird can do better than that. (Maybe Clooney can, too. Do you think he had any influence here?) Maybe Bird didn’t want to seem ridiculously naïve. But really, what other movie would have had as legitimate an excuse for being optimistic—an actual Disney film, named after Walt’s Tomorrowland! Bird’s animated movies are much more upbeat. We’ve had plenty of critiques of 1940s/50s optimism; an actual homage might have been a great chance to take. I think younger audiences in particular would find it refreshing.
MB replies: I have trouble remembering, as I think about Tomorrowland, just how the pieces might have fit together, as they were obviously intended to. I came away from the movie feeling as if I'd sat through an earnest lecture in a foreign language I did not understand.
[Posted June 19, 2015]
June 8, 2015:
Tim Hollis passed through town one day last week, and Hames Ware and I met him for lunch. We talked about cartoons and old-time radio and related matters—including, most notably, the latest of Tim's more than two dozen books, Toons in Toyland: The Story of Cartoon Character Merchandise (University Press of Mississippi). I was happy to write the back-cover blurb for that book, and, if I may, let me quote myself:
This highly entertaining book evokes a time, just a few decades ago, that must seem very strange to most of today's children. It was a time when kids could see cartoons only in theaters or on TV, in shows that could not yet be recorded. Cartoon-themed merchandise was thus a way to stay connected with beloved characters who were otherwise just as inaccessible as flesh-and-blood movie stars. Thanks to Tim Hollis and his richly illustrated book, readers who remembers those days can revisit them with a smile—a lot of cartoon merchandise was hilariously awful—and younger readers can enjoy peeking through a window into what life was like before cartoons became ubiquitous on videotapes and DVD.
Exactly right, although "immensely entertaining" might say it even better.
A lot of cartoon-character merchandise has surprisingly little to do with the cartoons themselves. For instance, Tim points out in his book how far removed the early Jay Ward and Hanna-Barbera Little Golden Books were from the characters as they appeared on the screen.The first Yogi Bear Little Golden Book "seems to be based on the wrong source, as Yogi eats honey to gain strength, just as Popeye did with spinach." And then there's the first Flintstones Golden Book, in which Fred and Wilma have a son, Junior, and a pet dinosaur, Harvey.
Did such anomalies bother the people who owned the characters? Not much, I can say with considerable assurance after reading the correspondence between Western Printing and a number of its licensors when I was writing Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books. The Dell comic books often departed from their originals—sometimes radically, and often for the better—but that doesn't seem to have concerned the licensors. What really mattered to them was the size of their checks, and Western paid well, and on time.
From Donald Benson: Got the book and really enjoyed it. The only nitpick is that I would have enjoyed even more photos, especially of some things he mentions but doesn't show (and it's a hefty volume as is). Should be noted he takes a fun side trip into cartoon-themed attractions and franchises. I never quite got the collecting bug, but I've accumulated a shelf's worth of volumes like these. I don't so much crave owning these artifacts as much as I like being able to prove they existed.
[Posted June 9, 2015]
June 6, 2015:
Last February, I published on the Funnybooks feedback page a piece by Kim Weston, written originally for CAPA-alpha, about Carl Barks's income from Western Printing & Lithographing Company during the quarter century that he drew the Disney ducks for Western's Dell and Gold Key comic books. Kim has now revised and updated that comment to take into account some additional information about Western's pay rates in a memoir by Matt Murphy, who was in charge of comic books in Western's New York office from 1952 to 1970. You can go directly to Kim's update by clicking on this link.
As Kim's piece indicates, Western apparently drew distinctions based on geography (higher rates for New York artists) and the nature of the drawings (higher rates for artists who drew stories that required a more realistic style, as opposed to cartoon characters of the Disney kind). As further evidence of that, here is what "Sparky" Moore, who drew cowboys like Johnny Mack Brown for Western's Dell comic books, told Hames Ware and me in a phone interview a few years ago:
So, yes, you started at twenty dollars [per penciled and inked page], and the rate never went higher than thirty dollars. I could never get the thirty dollars. I got up to twenty-nine dollars, but I could never make it [to thirty]. I think it was Chuck McKimson who said, “Don’t worry, nobody has ever gotten it.” But that was the pay scale. And you didn’t do the lettering, you just did the artwork. They had a letterer, and when your work was delivered, all you did was put in the balloons, and he’d do the lettering. You’d do the pencils, and he’d letter it, and then you could build the picture around that.
From all appearances, Western's pay policies were like those of many other publishers that dealt with free-lancers; that is, there was a de facto minimum, but room to raise the rates a little as circumstances seemed to require. Certainly that was the way things worked when I was a sub-editor at a business magazine, commissioning short pieces. Would Carl Barks have been paid more if Western had any real reason to believe that he might bolt to another publisher? Maybe; but no other publisher was a good fit for Barks, as Western undoubtedly knew. Making him an employee was probably the best solution for both Barks and Western, since it introduced a welcome element of certainty into the inherently uncertain free-lance relationship.
There's something else, which Kim Weston points out: "Sparky Moore's comments bring up another important distinction between Barks and other artists. Sparky and other artists got a script, penciled it and sketched in space for word balloons and brought pencils in to the office. There it was lettered and possibly criticized and/or edited. Then they got it back, inked it and brought in the finished story. Writers (perhaps not all) turned in story ideas for approval, then went back and wrote them. In contrast, Barks had vastly more freedom. He came up with a story idea, wrote it, drew it, lettered it, turned it in and got paid. And generally all that with no interference or prior approval other than on gag ideas and cover ideas, and apparently often not on those either."