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"What's New" Archives: February 2016



February 25, 2016:

Return to San Diego

The Search for Walt Kelly's FBI File

Guest Post I: The Name of the Mouse

Guest Post II: Comics Versus Art


February 11, 2016:

More From Jack Kinney, and Jane


February 25, 2016:

Return to San Diego

The good people at Comic-Con International have invited me to attend next July's con in San Diego as their "special guest" in the company of such luminaries as Howard Chaykin, Daniel Clowes, Paul Levitz, Trina Robbins, Jeff Smith, and Maggie Thompson, to mention only a few of the other special guests. D. Fae Desmond, the con's executive director, explained to me what being a special guest involves:

As part of your participation as a Special Guest, we ask that you appear on at least one program, a spotlight on you or your work, so your fans will have a chance to see you at the convention. Additionally, you may be asked to be on a separate panel with other guests of the show. Most guests also do an autograph signing after their spotlight program.

Sounds like fun. The Comic-Con's website, with a complete list of special guests, is at this link.


The Search for Walt Kelly's FBI File

Hoover in PogoI've had some interesting—well, more frustrating than interesting, maybe—correspondence with the FBI and the National Archives in regard to an FBI file on Walt Kelly that may or may not exist.

That such a file exists, or did exist, seems likely, because Kelly had the effrontery to depict J. Edgar Hoover as a bulldog in the Pogo comic strip, back in the early 1970s. If the Russians could complain about Kelly's depiction of Nikita Khrushchev as a pig—and they did—then surely the FBI did not take kindly to a depiction of "the director" as a canine. That episode in the strip was published long after Kelly's comic-book work had ended, and it was of course his comic books that were of greatest interest to me when I was writing Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books; but considering that Pogo had political content almost from beginning, it seemed possible that Kelly had fallen under FBI scrutiny as early as the early 1950s.

I wrote to the FBI, and here's what happened, to quote from a letter I sent last October to the National Archives (NARA):

Several years ago, as part of my research for a book published by University of California Press, I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the FBI for copies of any records related to Walter Crawford Kelly Jr., known as Walt Kelly, the cartoonist who created the “Pogo” comic strip that was popular in the 1950s and 1960s. The FBI replied that “a search of the Central Records System maintained at FBI Headquarters indicated that potentially responsive records have been sent to NARA ... using file number 36-HQ-682 as a reference.”

I wrote to NARA, asking if the FBI’s records related to Mr. Kelly had been preserved at the National Archives and citing the file number the FBI had given me. I subsequently heard from Martha Wagner Murphy, chief, special access and FOIA staff, who wrote: “We located this file [36-HQ-682] in RG 65, Classification 36 (Mail Fraud) Headquarters Case Files; microfilm reel 10. This is a 1924 investigation of one E. C. Busey. The name you provided appears nowhere in the file. We have determined, therefore, that this file is not responsive to your request.”

Ms. Wagner suggested that I file another FOIA request with the FBI, asking for a search of FBI name indexes, but it was just such a search that yielded the incorrect file number in the first place.

I know that an FBI file on Walt Kelly almost certainly exists, or has existed; I have seen several references to it on the Web, although those references seem not to be based on firsthand knowledge. My question is, how might I best go about locating the missing file, considering that filing another FOIA request with the FBI would probably be futile?

It took some prodding, but NARA finally replied this month:

Unfortunately, at this time, we can only provide you with information specific to the case file number you provided. The FBI investigation case files in our custody are not arranged by name nor do we have a main file index to search by name. Our case files are arranged by Headquarters and Field Office thereunder by case file number. If you would like to locate files responsive to an individual, you will have to contact the FBI for a specific case file number.

I'm tempted to say the hell with it, but I'm wondering now if a Kelly FBI file ever existed, and if it still exists, what has happened to it. If you know, please tell me.


From Kirk Nachman: Mike! You old dog!

Despite years of abstinence from scurrilous to scabrous participation in online cartoon forums, offenses which have alienated me from all cartoon intelligentsia, I, perhaps unadvisedly, set the clock back to zero and write to your problematical self.

That said, I wanted to give you my thanks for this little post on your efforts to gain access to an alleged FBI file on the great Walt Kelly. Contrary to you, I prefer the socio-political commentary of the concluding period of the strip, primarily spanning the Johnson and Nixon administrations. I also prefer his later style to the Dell Four Color era, some exquisite covers notwithstanding. These little subjectivities aside, I'm eager to know the outcome, should you continue to attempt to secure copies of said file. I do hope you'll persist. I can't imagine the bureau intentionally giving you the clerical runaround for a figure like Kelly, now increasingly obscure, long dead, and thus neutralized, insofar as comment on current activities of the intelligence apparatus is concerned. Credulity in the face of the FBI is likely naive, yes. Kelly's satire of Hoover, Agnew, and disgraced former Attorney General Mitchell are some of the funniest moments I've found in the strip. My ongoing interest in Kelly's political tendencies are enlarged by your efforts.

[Posted March 26, 2016]


Guest Post I: The Name of the Mouse

A guest post by Garry Apgar, author of the important new book Mickey Mouse: Emblem of the American Spirit:

The Italian intellectual and fiction writer Umberto Eco (1932-2016), best known for his historical novel The Name of the Rose, died on February 19th. Eco had a thing for the classic Disney of the 1930s. The names of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Horace Horsecollar, and Clarabelle Cow, for instance, playfully crop up in two other novels by Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2004).

In an October 12, 2002 article in The Guardian, “Signs of the Times,” Eco told journalist Maya Jaggi, “I’m not a fundamentalist, saying there’s no difference between Homer and Walt Disney. But Mickey Mouse can be perfect in the sense that a Japanese haiku is.”

If there is any truth in that remark, the American humorist and sometime cartoonist James Thurber may, by over sixty years, have beat Eco to the punch—on one point at least. In “The ‘Odyssey’ of Disney,” an essay in the March 28, 1934 issue of The Nation, Thurber said that his purpose in the piece was “to put forward in all sincerity and all arrogance the conviction that the right ‘Odyssey’ has yet to be done, and to name as the man to do it no less a genius than Walt Disney.”

Italian Mickey

One of two classic Mickey-themed images reproduced in Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.


Guest Post II: Comics Versus Art

Comics as ArtPatrick Garabedian contributes these thoughts on Bart Beaty's Comics Versus Art (University of Toronto Press, 2012), a significant book that escaped my notice when it was published a few years ago:

Notwithstanding its pleasures—Beaty uses the outing of Carl Barks as the "good artist" as an example of comics fandom's importance in discovering an anonymous artist and validating him as truly an artist—I think the central premise of the work is wrong. Beaty sees a basic importance in the acceptance of comics by the museum-centered art world, to give them a place in the "legitimizing hierarchies" of "the serious or consecrated visual arts." He comes close to the truth of the matter on pp. 186-87, where he mentions the argument that "the appropriate place for comics [is] on the printed page, not on the bare white walls of the museum," that putting comics there [undermines] "the specificity of the form" (because the comics are not merely a visual art).

The first modern museum is supposed to have been established in Haarlem, Holland, just before the French Revolution, and for practical purposes the modern museum's birth can be dated to the establishment of the Louvre shortly afterwards. It was specifically designed to display objects that could be seen at one time by more than one person, principally painting and sculpture of the grand tradition—large objects, viewable by many from some distance, generally accepted as valuable and worth admiring.

These are limitations on what museums can legitimize by themselves. Even art forms of considerable antiquity and monetary worth, "minor arts" such as tapestries, furniture, jewelry, and illuminated manuscripts, can have a hard time gaining a presence in museum displays, especially if they cannot be seen by more than one person simultaneously. Even today, generally accepted art forms such as music, opera, ballet, literature, and film can no more be displayed in this setting than comics without changing the museum venue into that art's venue (i.e., a film theater) or acknowledging that the visual art displayed is only a secondary aspect of that art form. That's absolutely true for comics, too. These other art forms have to establish their validity by achieving their own popularity and longevity outside the museum setting, if their occasional forays into that setting are to be justified.

Such forays themselves are not what gives them validity as art forms. The essence of comics—and comic books—is one person mentally immersed in the sequence of panels of the work, both the narrative (mainly text) and the art. Much more than by any presence in the gallery/auction house/museum worlds, comics must be validated as an art form by their widespread appeal (which right now,is being expanded by graphic novels and, somewhat sadly, by manga) and by their permanence (this is where I think their availability in book format , also as reprints and in libraries, becomes important). Foreign comics have not won acceptance in their cultures through the extent by which they are featured in museums, but through their wide popularity among adults as well as youngsters, and by generally more permanent publication formats than in the U.S


February 11, 2016:

More From Jack Kinney, and Jane

I've posted my second interview with Jack Kinney, from November 1976, at this link. For this interview, Jack was joined by his wife, Jane, who also worked at Disney throughout the 1940s.


From Don Peri: Thanks for posting this second interview with Jack and Jane Kinney. It is always entertaining and informative to spend time with Jack. I wish I had met him! I not only appreciate learning more of Jack’s story but also his take on his colleagues is a plus. We all hope you have more interviews in store for us. Thanks again!

MB replies: More interviews are definitely part of my plan, but with whom, and when, are questions I can't answer now.

[Posted February 13, 2016]

From Garry Apgar: Okay. So more “interviews are definitely part of"Mr. B’s “plan,” but apparently only The Shadow knows what further treasures lie in store.

In any event, the two Kinney interviews are chock full of pure gold on all manner of subjects, from Pluto to Ichabod and Mr. Toad ... from Walt’s secret bottle of Harvey’s Bristol Cream to Roy Williams (and his Lasalle) and Gunther Lessing, “the red-headed bastard,” ... and much, much more. Plus, the overall, textured feel these transcriptions provide for Jack’s time at Disney is priceless.

[Posted February 14, 2016]

From Fred Grandinetti: In your discussions with Jack Kinney did he ever mention his Popeyes? Trying to understand why many were animated very well and others horrible. It seems to relate who was the animation director yet these men were all very talented. What are your thoughts?

MB replies: Jack mentioned the Popeye cartoons in the 1973 interview, contrasting the overdone preparation for some Disney cartoons with the super-fast production of the Popeyes. To my mind, the results on the screen are unappealing in both cases, but it's the Kinney Popeyes that suffer most in any comparison.

Fred Grandinetti is, by the way, the author of three authoritative books on Popeye—do an amazon.com search on his name and they'll all come up.

[Posted February 24, 2016]