August 28, 2017:
Disney (and Wong) on PBS: “Walt Disney,” the American Experience documentary that first aired two years ago, will be rebroadcast on the next two Tuesday evenings, part one tomorrow and part two on September 5, both at 8 p.m. EDT. Both halves are two hours long, and both are terrible misrepresentations of Walt and his accomplishments. I mention the show here only in case you haven’t seen it and feel some vague urge that you should. You shouldn’t; unless, that is, you have an incomprehensible urge to spend far too much time with the likes of Neal Gabler and Richard Schickel.
Another PBS documentary with a Disney connection will be broadcast on Friday, September 8, three days after the second part of “Walt Disney.” Tyrus,” about the very long life of the Chinese American artist Tyrus Wong, will be broadcast at 9 p.m. EDT as part of the American Masters series. Note the distinction: American Experience for Walt, American Masters for Ty Wong. The distinction is significant: Walt was presented in his PBS incarnation as essentially a sociological phenomenon, whereas Wong, it’s clear from the preview material, will be presented as an artist whose work is not just worthy of respect on its own but also stands as a monument to one man’s triumph over racism.
This is, as I suggested early this year shortly after Wong’s death at the age of 106, mostly malarkey, but I must admire the selling job that won Ty a PBS documentary and a remarkable front-page obituary in the New York Times. Ty’s work was excellent, to be sure, but his timing was also superb.
Beyond Ink and Paint: That’s the title of a documentary film that Christine Guest is making about women in animation. She has filmed interviews with an impressive roster of women and a few men (so Don Hahn is on the interview list—but where is Jenny Lerew?). She is attempting to raise the money to complete the film through a Kickstarter campaign. I am allergic to Kickstarter campaigns in general—I can’t help but think of John Kricfalusi’s campaign for a cartoon to be called Cans Without Labels, a campaign that attracted lots of money but several years after its conclusion has resulted only in a decidedly unfinished (and, so far, godawful) film. Beyond Ink and Paint is, however, the rare instance of a Kickstarter project that is worthy of your support. And time is running out—the deadline is August 30. You can read about this project and make a contribution by going to this link.
August 8, 2017:
“Jake”: I mentioned last month, when I was writing about “Jake,” my decidedly former literary agent, that he and I shared only one Facebook friend, the excellent caricaturist Drew Friedman. As I suspected, and is so often the case with Facebook “friends,” the connection between Jake (his real name, actually) and Drew was essentially nonexistent, and Drew unfriended Jake when he read my account of my unfortunate dealings with him.
This is what I dislike most about Facebook, and why I am so relucant to “friend” people I don’t know, however legitimate they seem. It’s all too easy to find yourself a “friend” of someone as low-grade as Jake. Like Drew Friedman, you can “unfriend” that person when you learn what he or she is really like, but in the meantime, damage has been done.
Surviving Barks comic-book art: There’s not a lot of it, and what there is was cataloged quite thoroughly more than twenty years ago by Matti Eronen. Now Søren Marsner has brought the cataloging of the surviving art up to date on a website whose purpose he explains as follows:
“As I told Matti Eronen, I have always been very fond of his printed book from 1994, but I really missed seeing the surviving comic book art. The main purpose of the new website is to show good photos/scans of the original pages. For the most part I have used scans from the Carl Barks Library [the multi-volume set published years ago by Another Rainbow] in black and white. but I have started to change these scans to reproductions from the originals—when I am able to find them (a very difficult task). So far, of the 200 pages shown on the site, about 80 are reproductions from the original artwork.. For now, reproductions of the remaining surviving pages on the site are from the CBL—though I have some difficulties with the story from Uncle Scrooge No. 13, ‘Land Beneath the Ground.’ I am not really sure which parts have survived.”
What you see here is the earliest surviving comic-book artwork by Barks, the fifth page of the “Donald Duck” story in Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories No. 52, January 1945. According to Søren Marsner, the original art is now in a private collection in Finland.
There are surprises (at least I was surprised) to be found on Søren’s website, like the multiple Barks covers from the early fifties, many of which Barks himself colored and signed.
You can visit Søren’s admirable website, and possibly help him fill the gaps in his reproductions from the original art, by clicking on this link.
July 28, 2017:
75 Years of Duck Comics by Carl Barks
The 2017 San Diego Comic-Con has come and gone, and with it the occasion for the publication of the con’s souvenir book, which includes my essay marking the seventy-fifth anniversary of the publication of Carl Barks’s first Disney Duck comics. You can read my essay at this link.
I’m sure this editorial cartoon will be reproduced many places, but I can’t resist posting it here in case any of my visitors missed it. What I especially like is that it captures the spirit of the Chuck Jones cartoons so well; the artist (whose name, I’m embarrassed to say, I can’t decipher) clearly knows and likes the Road Runner cartoons, well enough that some of his poses echo the cartoons quite precisely. [A July 30, 2017, update: Garry Apgar identifies the cartoonist as Michael de Adder.]
But wait! I just noticed that this editorial cartoon appeared in a foreign newspaper! Time to build a wall on our northern border as well as the southern! Or maybe launch a surprise attack on Toronto. Those bloodthirsty Canucks deserve it.
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One of my lasting grievances with my publishers has been that they’ve set the prices for my books too high. University presses are good at publishing books, but, in my experience, not very much interested in selling them. For a tenure-maddened assistant professor who takes the apothegm “publish or perish” seriously, getting into print is all that matters, but for someone like me, who wants his books to be bought and read, that’s not enough.
That’s why I’ve been pleased to see Funnybooks, in particular, listed at a somewhat more reasonable price on amazon.com in recent weeks. It’s my favorite of all my books, and to see it overpriced and lagging in sales has been maddening (and my complaints have, I’m sure, not endeared me to the publisher). If you’ve been interested in the book but have put off buying it, now may be the time. The price has been bobbing around, and new copies are not available for Prime shipping from amazon itself, but finding a like-new copy for ten dollars or more off the the $34.95 list price should not be difficult.
Which reminds me: Volume 2 of Walt Disney’s Treasury of Classic Tales, the Sunday-page reprint series, was originally scheduled for publication this month, but is now set for September 5. A third volume is scheduled for publication next March, and I see from amazon’s listing that I am again to contribute introductory notes. That’s news to me, since I’ve heard nothing to that effect from the publisher, but I will of course be happy to step up to the plate once again, even if that means writing about The Parent Trap.
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July 12, 2017:
The Road to Hell…
…is paved with good intentions, of course, and for the past month this website has been a victim of such.
Some of my distractions have been good ones. It appears now that I don’t have Parkinson’s disease after all; that’s what the doctors concluded after I was injected with a radioactive material (I started to write “after I was bitten by a radioactive spider”) and underwent a procedure called a DAT scan.
On the negative side, I’ve hit a wall where my literary agent is concerned. As you may recall, that gentleman—let’s call him “Jake,” since that rhymes with “snake”—was appropriating my royalties on The Animated Man for himself until I blew the whistle a few months ago. By the time I caught on, the total he owed me was approaching eleven thousand dollars. After spending too much money on attorneys’ fees, I’ve had to conclude that recovering those royalties would be prohibitively expensive and quite likely impossible (“judgment-proof” is the operative phrase). There seems to be no point in pouring more good money down that rathole. “Jake” has a Facebook page, so I’ll be able to keep up with him that way, although his page has been quiet for the last few months. Maybe he knows he’s being watched.
“Jake” and I have only one “Facebook friend” in common, the estimable caricaturist Drew Friedman—or is “caricaturist” the right word? I see that Mark Evanier has identified Drew as an “lllustrator,” but that doesn’t seem quite right, either. What Drew draws are portraits—of old Jewish comedians, most famously, and of comic-book worthies—that are not so much exaggerated, in caricatural fashion, as rendered with near-hallucinatory clarity. I love his published work, but I especially enjoyed a show of his original art at the Society of Illustrators in New York a few years ago. I hope “Jake” is not his agent, or that Drew caught on to him faster than I did. Drew has a blog at this link.
Bugs Bunny, Packing Heat
I’m inordinately fond of the Dell Comics subscription premiums of the 1940s and 1950s, the pinups and trinkets you got for subscribing to the likes of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies Comics and Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories (the latter technically not a Dell title, but close enough). I’ve written about them several times on this site, as at this link. So, when this pinup from the early forties turned up on eBay some months back, complete with original mailing envelope, I couldn’t resist it, despite the sloppy color separations that left part of Bugs’s face white instead of gray.
I planned originally to post the pinup around Memorial Day, but I had second thoughts and decided to put off posting until the Fourth of July. But then I got cold feet again. Why, I’m not entirely sure, but I think my reservations had to do with that pistol on Bugs’s hip. There was just something too serious about that gun. Not too serious for Veterans Day, just possibly, but too serious for a day honoring the dead.
It may sound odd to speak of an overly serious gun in connection with Bugs Bunny, given the prevalence of guns in the Warner Bros. cartoons, and, for that matter, the frequency of violent deaths (Back Alley Oproar, Show Biz Bugs, ad infinitum), but the guns and the deaths are almost always at one or more removes from reality. They’re metaphorical guns and deaths; the characters wielding the guns and suffering the deaths are reaping the consequences of their own greed or stupidity. As I think I say somewhere in one of my books—forgive me for not looking it up—the worst fate a Warner character can suffer is not to be maimed or killed, but to be embarrassed. Only rarely is a Warner character “really” killed, as in the occasional Daffy Duck cartoon in which Daffy exits from a roasting pan looking more like a zombie than someone who has been playing dead.
Such cartoons serve mainly as cautionary examples. In contrast, animation at its best can deal not just comically but masterfully with questions of life and death; Walt Disney proved that most notably in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and I recommend the closing pages of my chapter on that film in my book Hollywood Cartoons as evidence. The makers of the best cartoons are always aware of what they’re doing, and of how to discipline themselves to achieve the result they want, whether that’s laughter or tears.
While I’m on the subject, any thoughts on who drew that Bugs Bunny pinup? It started with a drawing by Bob McKimson, I think, but I don’t know who took it from there.
June 13, 2017:
When Mickey Mouse Turned Five
Dave Mason wrote in response to an item I posted last fall, a guest post by Garry Apgar about the unsettled question of exactly when Mickey Mouse can be said to have been “born.”
Someone else may have stumbled onto this little nugget already… but I thought I’d pass along my findings in connection with your September 1, 2016, item providing a brief mention of the fifth birthday party for Mickey Mouse (September 30, 1933).
While the accompanying photo with Mickey and Bela Lugosi has been widely associated with Mickey’s fifth birthday since it was first published in the Motion Picture Herald (October 7, 1933), most Disney historians since that time have been unaware of the true location of the event and of the other individuals pictured in the photo.
Those pictured with Mickey Mouse include (left to right): Joe Penner (comedian), Mrs. Joe (Eleanor Vogt) Penner, Olga Baclanova (actress), Bela Lugosi (actor), Mrs. Bela (Lillian Arch) Lugosi (mother of Bela Lugosi’s only child, Bela George Lugosi), and Paul Gerrits (actor, comedian).
The confusion with subsequent descriptions of the photo might be rooted in the Saturday, September 30, 1933, column by “Phil M. Daly” in The Film Daily. In referencing “THE Mickey Mouse Birthday Party tonight at the Hollywood restaurant…” his lack of specificity may have led researchers to assume he was writing about a celebration in Hollywood, California.
However, the event was actually held at the Hollywood Restaurant (aka Hollywood Cabaret Restaurant) at 47th and Broadway in New York City. The event was hosted by Mickey’s new film distributor, United Artists.
The assembly of these individuals at New York’s Hollywood Restaurant makes a bit more sense when it is understood that Lugosi, Baclanova, and Gerrits had just opened on September 12 in Earl Carroll’s “Murder at the Vanities” at the New Amsterdam Theatre (only five blocks from the restaurant).
This performance also represented Lugosi’s first return to the stage since starring as “Dracula” (1931) and as such, it would have been unlikely that he would show up in California that weekend to honor Mickey.
In addition, the two comedians would have been well aware of the New York party’s emcee, comedian and fellow performer Jerry Lester (who also provided several of the celebrity voices for Mickey’s Gala Premiere).
Prior reports on Mickey’s fifth birthday party have also mentioned Charlie Chaplin, Will Rogers and Mary Pickford being in attendance. However, that appears unlikely as the entire group had just gathered on September 28 at the Writers Club (6700 Sunset Blvd, Hollywood) to honor Walt and his smash success with Three Little Pigs.
It seems reasonable that if Walt wasn’t going to travel to New York for the east coast party, neither would the other attendees of the event in Los Angeles.
Garry Apgar, author of two books on The Mouse, adds the following: Great stuff from Dave Mason. The more you dig into Disney or Mickey, the more you find. One thread always leads to another—not to mention the occasional twisted knot. And wonderful photos, too. All that’s missing is a La Martinique matchbook on the table in front of Mickey and friends.
The Hollywood restaurant, at 47th and Broadway, was located not far from the Broadway Theatre, formerly Universal’s Colony Theatre, at 53rd and Broadway. The Colony, of course, is where Mickey Mouse debuted in November 1928 in Steamboat Willie. If there has been any modern-day confusion about the restaurant’s location that’s because Film Daily was published in the Big Apple. Back then, the paper’s readership (show biz folk mainly, and New Yorkers especially) would generally be familiar with the restaurant mentioned by “Phil M. Daly.” Anyone in Tinseltown would certainly know that the Hollywood was not one of their local hangouts. I might also point out that Jack Alicoate, the editor-in-chief of Film Daily, was a big Disney booster. As early as 1922 and running through 1929 after Mickey hit it big, Walt was written up twelve times in the self-styled “Newspaper of Filmdom.”
Dave’s post does pose two questions, however. What was Joe (“Wanna buy a duck?”) Penner doing in a promotional shot for a stuffed mouse? Once Donald Duck hit it big that would have been unthinkable. Penner, incidentally, was briefly caricatured in the last of the Silly Symphonies, Mother Goose Goes to Hollywood in 1938.
The second question is: what is in those two bottles on the table? Can’t be wine or champagne. They are not standard size bottles for vino, much less the bubbly. Besides, there is no stemware in sight. Maybe it’s sparkling mineral water. It looks like there’s ice in the otherwise empty highball glasses. Bela, Joe, and company may have been ready for a bottle of bonded whiskey to be brought to their table … but only after the Mickey Mouse business of taking the publicity photo was done. Then the party would really begin!
June 5, 2017:
A Museum Tour with Will Eisner (2000)
Back in December 2000, I caught up with the great cartoonist Will Eisner at the International Museum of Cartoon Art in Boca Raton, Florida, of which he was a trustee. We talked about his own career and the work of some of his peers over lunch and then as we walked through the museum and looked at the comic art on its walls, with my tape recorder running the whole time. My informal record of that visit—published here in the centennial year of Eisner’s birth—is at this link.
May 29, 2017:
The Writing Life, Cont’d
My 2,500-word essay marking the 75th anniversary of Carl Barks’s first comic-book work has been accepted and will be published in the souvenir book for this year’s Comic-Con International at San Diego. If you share my love for Barks, I think you’ll enjoy my piece.
The second volume of the collected Walt Disney’s Treasury of Classic Tales Sunday pages, with my commentaries, will be available July 25, according to amazon.com. If you liked the first volume, I’m sure you’ll like the second.
I mentioned early this month that my literary agent failed to send me the royalties I earned on The Animated Man, my Walt Disney biography, over a span of several years. He hasn’t responded to letters from my attorney, and I’ve been exploring what might be involved in filing a lawsuit. This is a difficult situation, because the amount involved, almost $11,000, is an awkward size. If I were owed $50,000, hiring an attorney to file suit on a contingency basis—that is, the attorney would get a large piece of whatever he recovered—would be the obvious course of action. If the amount were $3,000, writing it off as a bad debt would make just as much sense. But $11,000 isn’t enough to interest most lawyers, and it’s too much money to shrug off.
To state the obvious, almost no one goes into writing about animation and the comics, and about people like Walt Disney, in the expectation of making lots of money. (If they do, they’re in for a disappointment.) To have even the modest royalties I’ve earned on The Animated Man stolen by someone I trusted is very painful. It turns out that I put my trust in an agent who is not even a a thief with a little imaginative flair, but just the moral equivalent of a pickpocket.
John Canemaker’s New Blog
Today is John Canemaker’s seventy-fourth birthday, so what better time for a fellow septuagenarian to celebrate his new blog. John Canemaker’s Animated Eye is already, and predictably, given John’s track record as writer, scholar, and filmmaker, one of the ornaments of the internet. John posts rather infrequently, because each post is so rich in rare photos and fresh information about subjects close to his heart (Disney, McCay), but in contrast to yours truly, John has made it easy to keep up with his blog through email updates. Blogs like John’s seem to be scarcer in these days of Facebook superficiality, and I’m very pleased that he is paddling against the tide with such a substantial offering.
May 28, 2017:
Richard Schickel died early this year, an event that seems to have attracted scant notice in Disney/animation circles despite the notoriety that Schickel enjoyed, if that’s the word, beginning with the publication in 1968 of his sort-of biography of Walt Disney, The Disney Version. I find no mention of his death on the Cartoon Brew or Disney History websites, to mention a couple of sites that I visit often.
The Disney Version, the first unauthorized book-length examination of Walt’s life and work, has been in and out of print since its publication, more often in than out, each new paperback edition equipped with excerpts from admiring reviews. As best I can tell, none of those reprintings have incorporated any significant corrections. Years ago, for reasons I don’t now recall, I decided to go through the book (the hardback original, which I bought in 1968) and identify as many of Schickel’s sources as possible—not a daunting task, as it turned out, because he had relied heavily on sources anyone could find in the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature. I quickly decided that his use of those sources was careless and error-prone. He did talk to some former Disney employees, but not very many, and here again his “research” was remarkably thin, as I learned when I examined his notebooks and other materials at the University of Wisconsin.
As with Disney, so, evidently, with other Schickel books. I actually bought his 1984 D.W. Griffith biography on the strength of some rapturous reviews, only to be brought back to earth by Tom Gunning’s review (sympathetic but ultimately damning) in American Film. I never did finish reading that book.
Schickel was of course a prominent talking head two years ago on the misbegotten two-part PBS show about Walt, along with Neal Gabler, and the two writers’ casual attitude toward mere facts seems similar. Gabler’s Disney biography was loaded with significant (and avoidable) errors, and when the paperback edition came out, exactly one of those errors had been corrected, most likely by the publisher (because it was mentioned in a prominent review) rather than the author. Schickel, like Gabler, seems to have proceeded with a limited interest in factual accuracy. More important to both authors, I’m sure, was the opportunity to say what they thought, and when facts got in the way of their opinions, so much the worse for the facts.
That’s not necessarily a terrible thing, but proceeding in that manner places a very heavy burden on the quality of your opinions. With Schickel and Gabler, the salient characteristic of their opinions is not their intellectual substance but that they coincide with the prejudices of their target audience—urban sophisticates who have long regarded Walt and his works with comprehensive disdain. Such congruence guarantees some good reviews, even when the authors involved are lightweights compared with Schickel and Gabler. (Among other writers on Disney and related subjects, Marc Eliot and Stefan Kanfer come immediately to mind.)
Where Disney is concerned, I’ve often been acccused of having opinions myself, or, more specifically, “strange opinions,” the kind that don’t square with the stale incantations by so many Disney-blessed writers. I’m rarely called out for inaccuracies, more often for being accurate in inconvenient ways. (Was Dave Hilberman, the Disney strike leader, a communist? Well, yes, he said so, but let’s pretend he wasn’t.) When there are errors in my books, you’ll find them corrected on this site, and, whenever possible, in subsequent printings. Sometimes the expense of fixing a mistake makes a correction in the printed books impractical, and then especially I feel the chagrin expressed so well by the Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt: “[S]cholars find it extremely painful to be caught out in even small factual errors. I have made my share, and I can bear witness that they burn, in Shakespeare’s phrase, like the mines of sulphur.”
It’s hard for me to understand writers who don’t feel that urgent need to avoid and correct errors, but there are a lot of them around, some of them in exalted places. Greenblatt was reviewing a book by an author who seems to be a Shakespeare-scholarship equivalent of Richard Schickel or Neal Gabler but whose book was published by a prestigious academic press and has enjoyed praise in many of the right places—but, at least, not in the New York Review of Books, where Greenblatt’s review appeared.
I feel obliged to add that Schickel was, in my sole exchange of brief letters with him, gracious and friendly (I offered to put him on Funnyworld’s mailing list, and he accepted the offer, in a reply that I have regrettably lost). That was probably in 1967, before The Disney Version. I’ve since heard of other people who had similarly pleasant encounters with him. With Neal Gabler, not so much. I think Gabler revealed himself most tellingly in a piece in the May 2016 Atlantic Monthly, titled “The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans.” Yes, it is indeed possible to boast and whine in the same breath.
May 9, 2017:
Partying at La Martinique
Back in March 2009, I posted this photo taken in New York on October 23, 1941, the evening of the premiere of Dumbo at the Broadway Theater; Fantasia had ended its run there two days earlier.
The premiere was a black-tie occasion followed by a celebratory party at which Walt and Lillian Disney were serenaded by rough-looking Western Union messenger boys. I didn’t know where the party was held, but now Dave Mason has come to the rescue. The matchbook on the table points to the answer: La Martinique, a nightclub at 57 West 57th Street, a few blocks away from the Broadway. (That theater was, and still is, as far as I know, at 53rd and Broadway.)
There was a Hotel Martinique in Manhattan, too—it’s still there—and when I was writing Funnybooks, and writing a caption for the photo just below (it’s on page 27), I thought it likely that it was taken at the hotel, which was at 32nd Street and Broadway, not far from Western Printing & Lithographing’s offices at 200 Fifth Avenue (at 23rd Street, where Broadway crosses Fifth). Someone, probably Oskar Lebeck’s wife, Ruth, wrote “Martinique” on the back of the photo, along with the names of some of the people there. But it was almost certainly taken at the nightclub; the décor visible in both photos, and in other early ’40s photos from the nightclub that Dave Mason has shared with me, argues that both photos were taken at the same place, La Martinique.
The photo below, which was given to me by Oskar Lebeck’s daughter, the late Letty Edes, is dated on the back 1943, and was probably taken during Schlesinger’s expedition to the East Coast in December 1942 and January 1943. You can read about that trip, and see other photos taken then, at this link.
|Oskar Lebeck (at right), the New York-based editor of Western Printing & Lithographing’s Dell comic books, entertains a group at La Martinique that includes, from left, his wife, Ruth Lebeck; Leon Schlesinger, producer of the Warner Bros. cartoons; Mary DuBois, wife of Gaylord DuBois, Lebeck’s star comics writier; Harold Spencer, general manager of Western Printing’s Poughkeepsie plant; Spencer’s wife, Todd; and Gaylord DuBois. The woman with her back to the camera may be either Schlesinger’s wife, Bernice, or Helen Meyer, vice president of Dell Publishing.|
May 3, 2017:
As I Was Saying…
I last posted here in January. I don’t think I’ve ever before let so much time pass without posting. The reasons for my silence have been mostly related to health, my own and my father-in-law’s. I hesitate to post about personal matters here, but I know that some people have continued to check the site frequently, and they may appreciate an explanation of what’s going on.
My wife is an only child, and the full import of that status is probably felt most keenly when a very old parent (he is 92, a World War II veteran, and a widower) is sick. Especially, I might add, when that parent has been highly self-sufficient for many years and has had to adjust, grudgingly, to a much more limited existence after breaking his hip a year and a half ago.
His other ailments, piled atop that central injury, have limited our travel and interrupted other plans. Last fall, we were four hours away from a flight to California (and a visit to the Walt Disney Family Museum’s Pinocchio exhibit) when a call came from the assisted-living home: my father-in-law had fallen again. We had to cancel the trip. Last week he was back at the VA hospital in the midst of yet another crisis. It’s always something, and, of course, Phyllis and I have no choice but to respond.
As for me, I was diagnosed late last year with Parkinson’s disease. That diagnosis probably sounds dire, but maybe more so than is really the case. I don’t have any tremors, the disease having manifested itself most visibly in a slouching posture that Phyllis noticed before I did. There are drugs and therapies available to retard the disease’s progress, and I am taking full advantage of them.
These complications haven’t consumed all of my time, but when a few hours do open up I’ve had to weigh my desire to spend an hour or two with this website against the need to keep family and medical demands under control. (Do I dare take time to update the site when I could be working on my father-in-law’s income- tax return instead?) In March, Phyllis and I made a brief driving trip to the Carolinas that gave her a blessed break from the near-constant attention she feels obliged to give to her father—but we did stay in touch with him daily by phone.
My own medical situation seems to be settling into a satisfactory routine, and I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to post here with some regularity soon. I have a tremendous backlog of good material, such as a Will Eisner interview from 2000, my second with him, that I originally hoped to post in March to mark the hundredth anniversary of Will’s birth. With any luck, I’ll have it up in a week or two. This website is a source of great pleasure to me, and I’m looking forward to bringing it back to life.
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The Writing Life
I’ve done a little writing while the site was dormant, including notes for the second volume of IDW’s reprints of the Sunday page called Walt Disney’s Treasury of Classic Tales. I’ve also written an introduction for Theme Park Press’ reprint of Gerald and Danny Peary’s pioneering 1980 anthology The American Animated Cartoon.
I won’t be attending the San Diego Comic-Con in July, but I was asked to write a piece for the con’s souvenir book marking the 75th anniversary of the first appearance of Carl Barks’s drawings in a comic book, Four Color No. 9, Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold. I could hardly refuse that invitation. I don’t know yet if my essay has even been accepted—it certainly departs from the superhero orthodoxy that dominates the San Diego con’s proceedings—but I’ll hope that it passes muster. I enjoy nothing more than reading and writing about Barks’s stories, and I think my enjoyment is evident in the new piece.
No new books of my own are on my work schedule, and that’s just as well, I’m afraid. I am feeling decidedly sour about book writing.
I learned a few months ago that my literary agent, the man who represented me in negotiations with University of California Press for The Animated Man and Funnybooks, has been sitting on money that he owes me. The royalty checks from UC Press for The Animated Man, my Walt Disney biography, were mailed to him twice a year, normal procedure when an agent is involved. He was then to send the money to me, retaining his 15 percent commission. Instead, he cashed the checks and kept all the money.
As far as I knew, since my agent never sent me the royalty statements, my royalties never covered my advance. This went on for several years, until I finally got suspicious, fired my agent, and began getting royalties from UC Press directly.
UC Press has been very helpful, providing me with copies of all the royalty statements and cashed checks. The amount I’m owed is not huge, but it’s large enough to make a lawsuit an attractive next step, even at a distance of more than a thousand miles (my agent—my former agent—lives in Connecticut). Stay tuned.
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January 13, 2017:
|One of the hundreds of sketches Ty Wong made as the principal styling artist for Bambi. The sketches reproduced on this page and with the interview were taken from photographic slides that Wong provided; he said in a letter that most of the actual drawings were 3 3/4 x 5. “I may have done some larger,” he said, “but I did hundreds in 3 3/4 x 5.”|
Interviews: Tyrus Wong
I’ve posted my 1979 interview with Tyrus Wong, the Bambi designer, at this link. Wong’s death at the age of 106 has received a remarkable amount of attention in the media, including a front-page obituary and follow-up article in the New York Times and an admiring segment on CBS Sunday Morning. A PBS American Masters episode is to follow this summer. (The two-part Walt Disney show on PBS aired in 2015 under the American Experience label, Walt evidently not qualifying as a “master.”) Wong’s race—he was Chinese—has figured heavily in the coverage of his death; you’ll find the emphasis rather different in my interview with him.
The emphasis on racial discrimination in the obituaries for Ty Wong reminded me of a couple of racially tinged incidents when I was proselytizing for one of the Disney cartoons that I most enjoy.
Back in 1978, when I was the guest curator for the Library of Congress’ exhibit keyed to Mickey Mouse’s fiftieth anniversary, part of my job was to choose clips from Disney cartoons that would run continuously on video monitors. One cartoon I chose to excerpt was Woodland Cafe (1937), whose climactic sequence, the one I chose for the exhibit, is an inspired parody, with insect characters, of the Harlem nightclub called the Cotton Club. This was back in the infancy of videotape, and I had seen that cartoon only once, months before, on a Steenbeck at the library’s motion picture division, but it made a strong impression on me. I loved it.
I had forgotten, though, how closely the cartoon’s grasshopper jazz musicians resembled black musicians like those in Cab Calloway’s band. When the clips arrived from Disney and I saw that sequence again, I was immediately concerned that some visitors to the exhibit might take offense. So I asked several black professionals on the library’s staff to take a look and let me know if I should start over. They looked at the clip, and then they looked at me—as if I were nuts. They saw nothing offensive. The clip played at the exhibit for three months, in a city with a very large African American population, and there was not a whisper of complaint.
Fast forward more than thirty years, to 2009, when I showed the complete Woodland Cafe to a class at Washington University, in St. Louis. The first question to me after the screening came from a white woman; I forget the specifics, but the substance was, how could I justify showing a cartoon with such offensive stereotypes? There were some other rustlings of disapproval a couple of days later, when I showed Woodland Cafe to a larger audience in a university auditorium.
My own opinion of the cartoon, that it’s wonderful, had not changed over those thirty-plus years, and remains the same today. The cartoon’s comedy is sly and exuberant; its distance from anything racially derogatory seems to me unquestionable, especially when it is seen whole. But something had changed, so that what passed without complaint in 1978 had become offensive to some people thirty years later.
Perhaps we’re all aware now, more than in 1978, of how stubbornly resistant prejudice is to the cleansing power of what we are pleased to regard as enlightened thought; and so, to let pass any cultural artifact that might seem to enlightened minds to embody discredited notions about race (or gender, or many other things) can become intolerable. Such stringency has not deprived us of Woodland Cafe, at least not yet, but I need hardly mention other cartoons that have been consigned to cinematic purgatory, like the wonderful shorts that are the saving grace of Song of the South, and, perhaps most notoriously, Bob Clampett’s Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs.
For me—and of course I’m writing as a white man in his seventies—a critical distinction is whether the use of racial caricatures is contemptuous and mean spirited, as it is, for example, in some of the Walter Lantz Swing Symphonies of the early 1940s and a few Warner cartoons like All This and Rabbit Stew and Angel Puss. But “mean spirited” is the last term I’d apply to Woodland Cafe or Coal Black or the cartoons in Song of the South. And, if I need to say it, even those cartoons that are truly offensive deserve to be seen, so that everyone (adults, anyway) can reach their own conclusions.
|A model sheet for Woodland Cafe (1937), directed by Wilfred Jackson. Are we to see the grasshopper musicians as having exaggerated lips, as in some black stereotypes, or are those “lips” better regarded as masks of the familiar Felix the Cat kind? I lean toward the latter, but the floor is open.|
January 4, 2017:
Loose Ends in the New Year
The recently concluded year was one of the most dismal I can remember, personally and, especially, politically. This website, a constant source of pleasure to me because of the demands I impose on myself when I’m writing for it, has suffered from neglect. I hope to remedy that in 2017, although whether I succeed will depend on factors beyond my control, in particular my father-in-law’s health.
I have a long list of subjects I want to write about, and no time to do them justice, but here, as a stopgap, are a few bits and pieces that might otherwise fall by the wayside.
Trump. No, not that Trump. Ugh. Harvey Kurtzman edited a very short-lived humor magazine of that title in 1956, for Hugh Hefner. Kurtzman’s longing for respectability found its fullest expression in Trump, a much slicker publication than those he edited before and after. The contents of both published issues of Trump (and remnants of the third unpublished issue) have now been combined in a single volume by Denis Kitchen, publishing through Dark Horse under his Kitchen Sink imprint.
The book was announced many months ago, and I assume that its publication was delayed at least in part by the regrettable coincidence of its name and that of the Republican nominee. (I spoke briefly with Denis at last summer’s Comic-Con, but I didn’t think to ask him if that was the reason for the delay.) Anyway: the book is a handsome product, and thanks to Kitchen, most of Kurtzman’s best work is now back in print. We still need an anthology of the best of Help!, but the other gaps are few.
As for the contents of the Trump book, I refer you to my review of the complete Humbug (published in 2008 by Fantagraphics). Humbug was the Kurtzman magazine that followed Trump and was generally similar, in the way that a poor relation might resemble a prosperous cousin. There’s wonderful stuff in the Trump book, like Ed Fisher’s takeoff (in color) on the new “Dinsey” feature Hansel and Gretel, but Kurtzman was at his best, I remain convinced, in the comic-book Mad, especially in those stories that take the measure of the trashy comic-book culture of which Mad was a part. The early Mad was truly satirical (no longing for respectability there), as Trump and Humbug mostly were not, and Mad was for that reason better—funnier and sharper.
Tyrus Wong. The death of Ty Wong, at age 106, was big news over the New Year’s weekend. He was, of course, a background stylist for Bambi, and a man of great talent. I interviewed him in 1979, and he lent me slides of a dozen of his concept paintings for Bambi; I had copies made, and that’s one of them above. Posting the interview and the slides was on my to-do list for a long time, but those tasks never assumed their proper urgency, I suppose because Ty lived so long. When a man soars past 100, it’s hard to escape the feeling that he’ll live forever.
His death was a page one story in the New York Times, a story that spilled over onto almost a full page inside. I cannot recall another animation-related person, other than Walt Disney, whose death received comparable attention. (Walt’s obituary, like Ty Wong’s, was a front-page story in the Times, but, also like Wong’s, and more surprising, it started below the fold.) By way of contrast, Chuck Jones’s death was marked in the Times only by an Associated Press story, in the obituary section of the paper.
What made Ty Wong’s death big news was his race. and the discrimination he suffered as a young Chinese immigrant. The headline on Wong’s obituary reads: “‘Bambi’ Artist Finally Found Acclaim After Enduring Bias.” The discrimination was real, of course, and other Asian artists (like the Japanese American Bob Kuwahara) also suffered from it, but Ty Wong had a very long, productive life and enjoyed decades of professional success. His life was not defined by the hostility he encountered as a very young immigrant, and he did not speak of it in our brief interview. Perhaps the disproportion evident in the Times’ headline is a price that must be paid sometimes if an exceptional artist like Ty Wong is to receive the attention he deserves.
Because the Wong interview is much shorter than most of my interviews (only nine pages in typescript, compared with as many as a hundred for some other interviews), I may be able to get it scanned and posted faster than usual. Stay tuned.
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December 1, 2016:
A Carl Barks Concordance
I wrote a few weeks back about Kim Weston’s book called The Unavailable Carl Barks (in color), which brings back into print ten Barks stories with non-Disney characters (Andy Panda, Benny the Lonesome Burro, “Happy Hound,” Porky Pig). Weston now has published another Barks book under this unwieldy but precisely accurate title: The Complete Carl Barks Index: A Concordance of the comics of Carl Barks as published in the original comic books and reprinted in The Carl Barks Library, The Carl Barks Big Book of Barney Bear & The Unavailable Carl Barks (in color). Special Edition. It’s a print version of what was originally available only as a CD-ROM, and it’s a “special edition” because the illustrations are in color; a less expensive edition ($34.95 versus the SE’s price of $49.95) is illustrated in black and white.
The book, which Weston compiled with the help of Jim Lawson and Jeff Gray, is indeed a concordance, along exactly the same lines as the familiar concordances to the Bible and the works of Shakespeare. If, to take an entry at random, you want to know in which Barks stories jewelry appears or is even mentioned, the new book can tell you, and lead you to the exact pages in the original comic books and the various reprints. (That’s jewelry as distinct from individual jewels, which have their own entry.) There are entries under the umbrella title “Donald reading a book,” a heading that immediately called to my mind all the comic books in which Donald is doing exactly that; and the concordance even tells you in which stories Donald is reading a book titled, “Oh, so?”
There are, besides, bibliographic essays that illuminate shadowy corners of Barks’s output, including the the “new” Barks stories published since his death and the unpublished stories and parts of stories (Kim Weston wrote the pioneering essay on that subject for Funnyworld No. 16, back in 1975, and that essay, updated, is included in the book).
This is, in short, a book for the dedicated reader of Barks’s stories, the person who, like me, finds Barks’s work as endlessly absorbing as…as…well, other people find Shakespeare or the Bible.
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November 28, 2016:
This latest Disney-princess feature cartoon has much in common with earlier features directed by John Musker and Ron Clements.That’s not a particularly good thing. When the Samoan demigod Maui makes his entrance about 45 minutes into the film, I was instantly reminded of the genie’s first appearance in Aladdin (1988). Once again, in Moana, a larger-than-life comic figure sings about himself exuberantly, filling the screen. The problem is, Dwayne Johnson—whom I enjoy as an actor, as in his wonderful turn as “Bambi” on Saturday Night Live—is not an untethered comic genius like Robin Williams, and so there’s no sense of manic improvisation. What there is, instead, is an abrupt change in tone, as if a rather serious children’s story had just become a smart-alecky movie for teenagers.
What happens is roughly the reverse of what happens in an earlier Musker-Clements film, Hercules (1997), whose story takes a sharp turn toward the serious after a jokey opening. There’s nothing automatically wrong about such a change in tone, but I don’t think Musker and Clements have ever managed such changes as well as they might have. Maui feels to me like a character who has been imposed from the outside, rather than growing out of the story that the film has been telling before he appears.
That story is needlessly complicated, Moana is as a result a half hour too long, and there is way too much talk, but such shortcomings are common in today’s animated features, even one as good as Disney’s Zootopia. The impulse to make an animated feature as simple and direct as possible—that is, the impulse that underlies the best of the classic Disney features—is absent, or else the directors have not been able to harness it.
Moana has virtues, to be sure, especially its gorgeous effects animation, and Moana herself is an improvement over recent Disney princesses like the Frozen pair, more a real girl and less a plastic doll. The transformation at the end of the film, when a volcanic monster becomes a beautiful tropical island, is lovely and even moving. It’s a shame that the story has been structured so that this magical transformation seems almost like a footnote to the Moana-Maui rivalry.
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November 26, 2016:
Barrier Book Alert
I have a new one out—sort of. It’s the first volume of a projected series from IDW that will reprint all the Sunday pages published under the umbrella title “Walt Disney’s Treasury of Classic Tales.” I wrote introductions for the reprinted comics in the first volume, all of them based on Disney films from the first half of the 1950s. Jesse Marsh (of the Dell Tarzan comic books) drew the adaptations of live-action features like The Sword and the Rose, Manuel Gonzales and Dick Moores those of the Disney feature cartoons and a few shorts. Frank Reilly, the head of Disney’s comic-strip department, wrote the continuities that the others illustrated. Each adaptation ran for anywhere from a few weeks to six months in Sunday newspapers.
The book has been available since November 15, according to amazon.com, but I have yet to see a copy. It’s no doubt a handsome product. IDW has been doing an excellent job reprinting other Disney comics, like the “Donald Duck” dailies and Sundays and the “Silly Symphonies” Sundays, the latter with notes by J. B. Kaufman, and I have no reason to believe that the new book is any different.
I have no idea if there will be additional “Treasury” volumes, or if I’ll be asked to contribute to them, although I’d be happy to do so. Otherwise, my book-writing days are pretty much done. The current publishing climate is not receptive to the kind of work I do, even or perhaps especially at academic publishers. Fortunately, I still have this website as a poultice for my writing itch, and I have a long list of things I want to write about. I hope my personal situation (my father-in-law’s poor health and the many attendant complications) will let me get back to writing some substantial pieces in the near future.
November 12, 2016:
Clampett on Mars
From Bob Barrett:
Last week Heritage Auctions auctioned off the Edgar Rice Burroughs collection of an acquaintance of mine who passed away a couple of years ago. His wife tried to sell some of it but sales were just too slow and she was going to have to relocate to a care facility. One of the items was this animation cel for the proposed John Carter of Mars cartoon that John Coleman Burroughs and Bob Clampett wanted to produce. My friend and his wife thought the cel was by John Coleman Burroughs, unaware that he did not produce any animation art for the cartoon— it was all by Bob Clampett, as is this cel. Some time back you ran a piece on the proposed Tarzan cartoons that were also to be a collaboration between John Coleman Burroughs and Bob Clampett. Distributors had no interest in the John Carter cartoon and preferred cartoons featuring Tarzan. But even the Tarzan cartoons never really got off the ground— mostly because Clampett wanted to do John Carter and not Tarzan.
For a full rundown on the aborted Tarzan and John Carter cartoons, go to this Essay page, titled “Bob Clampett and ‘Tarzantoons.'”
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October 19, 2016:
Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right
When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature earlier this month, my first thought wasn’t of how wonderful (or terrible) it was that he’d received the award. I’ve enjoyed some of Dylan’s work, but I don’t own any of his recordings, and I don’t listen to much pop music of any kind. On the rare occasions when I want to listen to pop, I am most likely to seek out CDs by Buddy Holly or the Everly Brothers or other performers of that vintage. Performers, that is, who were active before rock ‘n roll lost its sense of humor. I don’t think anyone has ever called Dylan a barrel of laughs.
My first thought was, in fact, not of Dylan but of Carl Barks, and of how inconceivable it always was that he would ever receive recognition remotely comparable to what Dylan and other rock musicians have received, even before Dylan got his Nobel. Barks was honored by comics fans, and intermittently by governments, in the United States and abroad, but he never got the sustained, serious attention that his stature as an artist demanded. (I’m talking about his stature as a comic-book creator, of course, not as a painter of ducks. The less said about the paintings, the better.) The same could be said of other comic-book artists and writers, but Barks is the one whose best stories bob up in my consciousness with remarkable frequency—like Dylan songs in other people’s minds, I suppose—and that reveal new facets every time I read them.
I wonder if the comparative neglect of Barks has something to do with the lack of a well-developed vocabulary for talking about really good comic-book stories. I intermittently turn to handbooks (if I may call them that) like James Woods’ How Fiction Works and David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction because they heighten my awareness of what I’m reading and my understanding of how authors achieve the results they want. In Funnybooks, in particular, I tried to put to use some of what I’d learned from such books, by explaining, as the occasion arose, the techniques that Barks, Walt Kelly, and John Stanley used to give their stories so much comic life. But I wish there were equivalents specifically for the comics of books like Woods’ and Lodge’s, because a lot of what fits when you’re writing about prose doesn’t fit nearly as well when you’re writing about comics. For example, I don’t know how you’d go about discussing “free indirect style” as it relates to comics, because I don’t know how it could relate.
Many people reading that last paragraph would immediately invoke the name of Scott McCloud, the author of Understanding Comics, but I would have to demur. It has been a while since I read that book, but I remember feeling then that McCloud’s handling of time, especially, was inadequate, and that his book, like so many other books about comic books, took too much for granted the importance (artistic as well as commercial) of the superheroes. And the whole notion of writing a book about comic books as a comic book, which is what McCloud did, has always struck me as terribly misguided.
And speaking of comic books…
I’ve recently made my wife a little happier by beginning a serious effort to cull my comic books, especially the superhero titles that I read with some regularity from the 1960s to the 1990s. I’ve decided to keep some of those comics for the time being, titles by the more distinctive artists and writers who worked in the genre, people like Frank Miller and Neil Gaiman, but that leaves hundreds if not thousands that need a new home. The Billy Ireland Library at Ohio State is taking a box of comic books (and a second box of real books), but donating or selling the rest is turning out to be harder than I expected. I’ve written to a long list of dealers, including some I met in person at San Diego last summer, but the response has been minimal. For the most part, unless a comic book is at least fifty years old (and in excellent condition), no dealer is interested in it. Presumably, buyers can be found through eBay, but that’s a last resort. I understand that other veteran collectors are running into similar difficulties in shedding their surplus comics; maybe a long-lived bubble is finally bursting.
It’s tempting, in these circumstances, to dump my comics as expeditiously as possible, even if that means a trip to Goodwill, but we all know that the odds are that those unwanted comics will turn out to be worth fabulous sums a few decades from now. At my age, that really doesn’t concern me, but younger collectors have to look further ahead. I’d welcome your thoughts (and, especially, the names of reputable dealers who may be stockpiling stuff that no one much wants at the moment).
And Just for Fun…
Here’s another photo, via Don Peri, from the visit to Little Rock last month by Don, at left, and Pete Docter, who are flanking Phyllis and me at the beautiful old Capital Hotel (circa 1880s). We were about to have dinner at the hotel’s excellent restaurant. Among the hotel’s many other virtues: ceilings tall enough to accommodate someone of Pete’s towering height.
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September 24, 2016:
The ‘Toons of Summer
I didn’t see very many of them, as it turned out. I intended to see Finding Dory, but somehow missed it. I did see The Secret Life of Pets, with a six-year-old boy, a twelve-year-old girl, and four other adults. The little boy loved it, the rest of us hated it. The majority rules. The other animated feature I saw in the warmest months was the Laika feature Kubo and the Two Strings. I was with only one other adult, my wife, and we both loved it. This is a show that I expected to vanish quickly, but it lingered in local theaters for weeks, I’m sure propelled by favorable word of mouth. I’ve seen Kubo criticized for its overly complicated story, and I can’t quarrel with that criticism, but it’s emotionally coherent, and that makes all the difference. Phyllis and I both left the theater saying we’d like to see it again, and I’m sure we will.
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September 20, 2016:
|Pete Docter (seated at the computer) and Don Peri prepare to begin two days of perusing my research files. The gray boxes, filled mostly with comic books, were outside the scope of their research..|
Visitors to the VBA
That’s “VBA” as in “Vast Barrier Archives.” But you knew that. The visitors were Pete Docter, Pixar director (Inside Out, Monsters Inc.), and Don Peri, author (Working with Walt). They’re collaborating on a book about the Disney cartoon directors of Walt’s day, and they asked permission to spend a couple of days reviewing my files related to those people. Since I hold both Pete and Don in high esteem, I was happy to say yes, and they spent what they assure me was a productive weekend, September 17-18, in Little Rock, reviewing my files devoted to the likes of Wilfred Jackson, Ward Kimball, and Dave Hand. They interviewed me, too, with a recorder running—a strange experience that made me freshly aware of how much I asked of all the hundreds of people that Milt Gray and I interviewed decades ago. Given Pete’s and Don’s thoroughness, the book should be very much worth reading. I’m looking forward to it.
|I’ve stored most of the material that Pete and Don examined—interview transcripts, correspondence, clippings, documents of various kinds—in filing cabinets like these, in a workroom just off my home office.|
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September 7, 2016:
The Unavailable Carl Barks (in color)
The great bulk of Carl Barks’s comic-book work was for Disney titles, principally Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories, Donald Duck, and Uncle Scrooge. All of that work has been reprinted, some of it multiple times, most recently in the ongoing series by Fantagraphics. Of Barks’s non-Disney work, the most important stories are the twenty-six “Barney Bear and Benny Burro” stories that appeared in Our Gang Comics in the mid-1940s; they have been reprinted acceptably by Craig Yoe in The Carl Barks Big Book of Barney Bear.
Ten remaining stories—one each of Andy Panda and Porky Pig, two of “Happy Hound” ( Barks’s name for Droopy), three of “Benny the Lonesome Burro” (solo stories before Benny became Barney Bear’s sidekick), and three script-only Droopy stories ilustrated by Harvey Eisenberg—make up most of Kim Weston’s new book, The Unavailable Carl Barks (in color), which is filled out with restoration notes, alternative versions of a few other stories, and stray pages that have escaped the notice even of the most dedicated Barks admirers.
Let me emphasize how remarkable Kim Weston’s achievement is. He located original materials (not artwork, but excellent proofs) for seven of the ten stories. He also came up with source materials for other stories that had been mistreated on the way to the printing press, and they have now been restored to a state that must be closer to Barks’s intentions. The “Barney and Benny” restorations from Our Gang Nos. 18 and 21 are especially impressive, given the difficulties they obviously posed. All these stories have been recolored sensitively by Weston and Joseph R. Cowles. Three stories for which no original materials could be found (and almost certainly do not exist), for Andy Panda, Porky Pig, and Droopy, have been reproduced from excellent scans of the comic books in which those stories first appeared. Some of this material was published previously by Cowles in the lamentably discontinued Carl Barks Fan Club Pictorial, but Weston has more than picked up the baton.
It’s now possible to own all of Carl Barks’s comic-book work, in reproduction that is acceptable and usually much better than that. No admirer of Barks’s Disney stories should pass up the chance to explore his handling of other characters by buying Weston’s book and the Yoe Barney Bear book. The best Donald Duck stories surpass anything in the two new books, but since those stories are, for my money, the best comic-book stories ever, Barks can be forgiven for producing other stories that are merely excellent—and frequently hilarious.
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September 1, 2016:
|When Plane Crazy was previewed, as a silent cartoon, on May 15, 1928—the first public exhibition of a Mickey Mouse cartoon—was that Mickey’s “birthday”? Or are there other dates with as strong a claim to be the natal day? Walt Disney himself seemed to think so.|
When Was That Darn Mouse Born?
Garry Apgar, author of Mickey Mouse: Emblem of the American Spirit, writes regarding Mickey’s birth date.
In the introduction to the section in my anthology A Mickey Mouse Reader titled “The Early Years (1928-1931),” I said:
Animation on Steamboat Willie—Walt’s first cartoon planned from scratch as a talkie—was completed by late August 1928. The soundtrack was recorded on September 30th. Which is why, throughout the 1930s, the studio fêted Mickey’s birthday on or about October 1. In the 1970s, the Disney Company began celebrating the event on November 18th, since it was on that date, in 1928, that Willie premiered at the Colony Theatre on Broadway, as part of a lavish bill featuring a live orchestra and the now-forgotten mob movie, Gang War.
In chapter 3 of Mickey Mouse: Emblem of the American Spirit, I dug deeper into the matter. There I quoted from a letter typed by Walt during his three-month stay in New York, desperately trying to get Steamboat Willie off the ground. He was staying at the Knickerbocker Hotel, at West 45th and Broadway, and the letter, dated September 30, 1928, was addressed to brother Roy “and the gang” back in Hollywood:
Well – we finally recorded the picture this morning……Everything went great…..It worked like clock works….The Orchestra kept synchronization throughout the entire picture….It didn’t get off one beat….. This was a big help to the Effect men and the result was they all hit on the dot. I am sure happy over the whole affair because it proves absolutely that it can be done.
The “Effect men” were the Green Brothers Novelty Orchestra, who counted among their hit records in the 1920s a catchy, syncopated version of “Yes, We Have No Bananas.” When Mickey played the livestock on board Pete’s steamboat like musical instruments, the sounds he produced were furnished by the Green Brothers.
In another letter home, Walt rhetorically asked, “Do you realize what Powers paid the Green Bros. for their work on our picture? (Get ready to faint.).” In a follow-up report, he answered his own question, in all caps: “SIX HUNDRED DOLLARS.” A stupendous sum in those days, and of course, Pat Powers presumably found a way to pass the charges on to the Disneys.
Reiterating what I’d written in the Reader, I concluded: “In Walt’s mind, Steamboat Willie must have been ready to go at that point. Throughout the 1930s, the studio celebrated the anniversary of Mickey Mouse, privately and publicly, on or around September 30th.”
Also in Emblem, I had this to say with respect to Plane Crazy, the first Mickey actually made, although because it was conceived and produced as a silent picture it would not be released as a talkie until March 17, 1929:
Plane Crazy was informally previewed on May 15, 1928, at a theater on Sunset Boulevard—perhaps the West Coast Hollywood Theatre (later renamed the Oriental), at the corner of North Vista Street. Since this was the first public performance of a Mickey Mouse cartoon, May 15th may be considered Mickey’s actual “birthday.” On May 21st, the brothers Disney applied to the United States Patent Office to register “Mickey Mouse” as a trademark, thus unofficially recording his birth.
Nonetheless, as I said in the endnotes in Emblem (p. 302, n. 23):
The studio held a second birthday party for the Mouse on Oct. 4, 1930, at the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles (“Ambassador Archive”). Mickey’s fourth birthday was fêted on the studio lawn (Moving Picture World, Oct. 1, 1932, p. 42). The fifth birthday, as noted by Jim Korkis, was celebrated Sept. 30, 1933, “with a Hollywood testimonial party where the speakers included Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Will Rogers.” Time saluted Mickey on his sixth anniversary in its Oct. 8, 1934 issue (“Milestones,” p. 40), and the New York Times (“Screen Notes,” Sept. 28, 1935, p. 13) said that his seventh birthday would be marked on that date at a New York City theater with an “all-Walt Disney program of Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony cartoons.” The London Times, Sept. 25, 1936 (“Mickey Mouse’s Eighth Birthday,” p. 12), reported that the event would be honored (in England at least) on the 28th, and Mickey’s tenth birthday festivities were commented on by the New York Times on Sept. 25, 1938 (“Digest of an Indigestible Week,” p. 5). For information gathered by Korkis, see Korkis [Wade Sampson], “Walt Disney Celebrates Mickey’s Birthday.”
It seems clear to me that if Walt Disney himself celebrated Mickey’s birthday on or shortly after September 30th, that oughta be good enough for me, thee, and all our kith and kin. After all, it was in the wee small hours of the morning on September 30, 1928 that Mickey popped out of the womb, so to speak, of motion picture production and made his first funny sounds.
Walt’s willingness to expend so much time and money on Mickey Mouse, as he would later do to produce Snow White and build Disneyland, reflects his intense devotion to turning out a quality product, whatever the cost. The term “plussing,” a buzzword in recent years in Disney circles, reflects that devotion. It’s a term that speaks so well to Walt’s perfectionism that sometimes (wrongly, I think) it’s applied to his work in animation. However, he seems to have first used the word in conjunction with Disneyland. In a taped interview with Pete Martin in the spring or summer of 1956, from which you quoted in The Animated Man, Disney said:
… The park means a lot to me in that—something that will never be finished. Something that I can keep developing, keep plussing and adding to—it’s alive. It will be a live, breathing thing that will need changes. A picture is a thing that once you wrap it up and turn it over to Technicolor, you’re through. Snow White is a dead issue with me. The last picture I just finished—the one I just wrapped up a few weeks ago—it’s gone, I can’t touch it. There’s things in it I don’t like? I can’t do anything about it. I wanted something live, something that I could, that could grow, something I could keep plussing with ideas, you see? The park is that. Not only—can I add things but even the trees will keep growing. The thing will get more beautiful every year. And as I find what the public likes—and when a picture’s finished and I put it out—I find out what they like, or they don’t like, and I have to apply that to some other thing; I can’t change that picture, so that’s why I wanted that park.
Finally, and slightly off-topic, in Emblem of the American Spirit one of the illustrations (p. 99) reproduces a page from that Oct. 1, 1932, Motion Picture Herald article in which we see a group photo taken at the Hyperion studio. Among the dozens of staff in the photo must have been one “Frenchy” de Trémaudan. Recently I’ve unearthed some fresh biographical information about this relatively obscure Disney artist, more formally known as Gilles de Trémaudan (all too often, in print, the accent is dropped, the two last names run together, and the “de” mistakenly capitalized).
Gilles-Armand-René de Trémaudan was born in Saskatchewan, Canada, March 9, 1909, and died at the Veterans Home of California in Yountville, near Napa, Nov. 24, 1988, which means he must have served the nation in World War Two. He became a naturalized citizen while he was at Disney. Before Walt hired Frenchy in 1930, he attended the Otis Art Institute (circa 1929-1930) and for a while in the early or mid 1930s he was married to an inker he’d met at the studio named Doris Westcott (1912-1995). On June 27, 2011, on MichaelBarrier.com you posted a photograph in which we catch a glimpse of her from behind (Barrier, “Inking at Disney, circa 1931”).
Oh, and one more thing. Thank you for your generous and informed review of my Emblem book and your comment that it is “available now from amazon.com at a bargain price, $26.58.” How true. In fact, there is a used copy currently on offer at Amazon (quality, “very good) for just $16.29. Copies of A Mickey Mouse Reader, published by the University of Mississippi Press, are on sale at Daedalusbooks.com for only $6.98.
Note: the online link for the Ambassador Hotel information cited in the endnote to my book (www.ambassadorarchive.net) is now defunct.
August 24, 2016:
|The front cover of the first Daffy Duck one-shot, from 1953, with Daffy’s eyes merged.|
Michael Hodous writes about a seemingly minor matter that may have somewhat larger implications…:
Already a seasoned professional writer and editor at the ripe old age of twenty-three, Mark Evanier still encountered the occasional unnerving experience. As Mark so well documents in a post from December 2015 describing two cover designs for Western Publishing:
On the Daffy Duck one, I committed what was then considered a mortal sin: I merged Daffy’s eyes together. This was the early seventies and there was no active Warner Brothers Cartoon Department. The folks who decided what those characters looked like—whether they were drawn properly—were in some sort of Licensing Division at the Warner company and they were furious if Daffy’s eyes merged. There had to be black between them. Fortunately, they never saw my rough or I might have been forbidden to ever draw (or even imagine) Daffy ever again. They didn’t approve roughs; just the finished art which in this case was done by Joe Messerli.
Now, thanks to the many contributors to the Grand Comics Database, we have evidence that the situation was even worse than Mark realized at the time. Mark’s cover design was for Daffy Duck No. 98 (December 1975), published by Western under their Gold Key label. Exactly as Mark writes, the final cover by Joe Messerli shows Daffy’s eyes separated by a clear black stripe. Now go here for a larger scan of this cover. Then work forward to issues No. 99, 100, 101, all the way to the final Western issue No. 145, if you like. On every cover, except for when Daffy is drawn in profile, his eyes are always clearly separated.
Now work backwards from issue No. 98: No. 97, No. 96, No. 95, as far as you care to go. With very few exceptions, Daffy’s eyes are drawn, not like the finished artwork for issue No, 98, but exactly as Mark drew them in his preliminary layout for that issue. Look at the cover galleries for earlier issues published under the Dell label, for 1956-59 and 1959-62, and at the first three Daffy comics, published as Four Color 457, 536, and 615. Again, with very few exceptions, Daffy’s eyes are merged, exactly as in Mark Evanier’s preliminary drawing that produced so much negative comment so many years later.
Nor was this limited to the covers. The Lambiek Comiclopedia article on artist Phil De Lara includes three panels of interior art from Daffy Duck No. 30. Even in one of Daffy’s rare contemplative moods in the third panel, De Lara draws Daffy’s eyes exactly as Mark Evanier drew them in his cover sketch.
Chuck Jones used this ocular oddity to indicate a character in extreme emotional distress, as in his 1951 cartoon Drip-Along Daffy. At 03:33 Daffy’s double-pasteurized milkshake has just been shaken, not stirred, by a passing bullet. At 03:44 members of the local gambling syndicate realize that they’re about to get caught in a crossfire. At 05:24 Porky and Daffy react to a conglomeration of alcoholic beverages not often served in the best restaurants. Robert McKimson featured the same depiction at 06:02 and 06:10 in the 1956 release The High and the Flighty. A complete catalog of such moments calls for more research.
In the Dell/Western comic books of the 1950s through the mid-1970s Daffy’s merged eyes are the rule, not the exception, making Daffy’s usual appearance look … well … Daffyer, in keeping with his personality. The comic book Daffy is no longer the malicious heckler and saboteur of his early animated film roles. Nor is he the scheming but incompetent curmudgeon of Chuck Jones’s 1950s cartoons. Rather, Daffy on the printed page is an insidiously cheerful free spirit whose sublime obliviousness to social protocol makes him such a puzzle and an annoyance to all those around him.
To add insult to injury, a few months before the Daffy Duck No. 98 cover caper Chase Craig called in Mark to help relaunch Looney Tunes as a thirty-six-page comic book. Besides writing most of the stories for the first few issues, Mark supplied gags for several covers. The first of these (penciled by Pete Alvarado), for the issue with an April 1975 cover date, includes not only Mark’s Bugs and Tweety gag, but a small strip at the bottom showing the faces of several other characters. Not only are Daffy’s eyes shown as merged, so are Yosemite Sam’s. And all the characters, including Sam and Daffy, are smiling happily. It was only a few months after this cover was approved that the licensing division at the Warner company started complaining vociferously about an artistic convention that had been a generally accepted accounting principle for Warner Bros. comic-book characters for more than twenty years.
Did the licensing division at the Warner company only come into existence in or slightly before 1975? Michael Barrier may have a few thoughts on that subject.
MB here: I do, actually. Licensing Corporation of America (LCA) came into existence in 1960 and was bought by National Periodical Publications in 1966 (at the height of the Batman TV craze), shortly before National itself was acquired by Kinney Service Corporation, the Steve Ross conglomerate-aborning that ultimately became Time Warner. My own encounters with LCA started in 1972, when the project in question was a possible paperback book called The Films of Bugs Bunny. Not long after that, Warner Bros. Television got excited about the possibilities in a grandiose Looney Tunes art book like The Art of Walt Disney, which had been a big hit of the 1973 Christmas season. Warners, through LCA, corresponded with me for years about assembling such a book, which it was ultimately decided would be published by Warner Books. Never happened, needless to say, although the idea didn’t die completely until Steve Schneider’s more modestly scaled book about the Warner cartoons was published by Holt in 1988.
In all my dealings with LCA, I don’t recall any question arising about how the characters were to be depicted in any newly commissioned art. There wasn’t to have been much, of course, except on the dust jacket designed by Milt Gray, who drew the characters in an authentic 1940s style. So who were those enforcers at LCA who evidently knew with religious certainty how Daffy’s eyes were to be drawn? Why did they come down on Western Publishing but not on me and Warner Books? Damfino, as Buster Keaton might put it. Arnold Lewis, my principal contact at LCA over the years, always struck me as too reasonable a man to be in thrall to such bad ideas, and who knows, maybe he was running interference.
So, what does it all mean? Not much, probably, except as one small example of the kind of warped thinking that has so often ruled the comic-book world and damaged the comics themselves. Daffy does look a hell of a lot better with those merged eyes, after all.
August 16, 2016:
Walt Kelly’s Disappearing FBI Files
I last wrote on May 24 about my long struggle to get the FBI or the National Archives to yield up Walt Kelly’s FBI files. Although there was evidence that such files existed, or had existed, the FBI had told me that it couldn’t find them. A Norwegian visitor to the site wrote the same day, providing me with file numbers he had found through a Google search. I wrote to the FBI again, filing an appeal from its earlier rejection of my request.
Still no luck, and this time I’m afraid I really have reached a dead end. Christina D. Trolani of the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy did not refer to the information my correspondent had provided, but simply said, “I have determined that the FBI’s action was correct and that it conducted an adequate, reasonable search for such records.”
Well, maybe, although my experience with such bureaucracies, from my years on Capitol Hill, is that once they have settled on a position, however unreasonable, nothing short of dynamite will work a change. (Don’t get me started on the Army Corps of Engineers…) Perhaps Kelly’s files were destroyed, but if so, why not say so? All that seems certain is that the files are inaccessible, whether they exist or not. It’s fortunate that the files’ contents seem to have been of limited interest, but I remain disgruntled that I wasn’t able to see them.
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August 15, 2016:
Where Walt Was: February 26, 1941
He was at the Burbank studio, where at 3:30 on that Wednesday afternoon he received a visitor, the British baronet Sir Thomas Beecham, who was not just a great conductor but also a colorful celebrity musician like Leopold Stokowski. Fantasia had opened in Los Angeles on January 29, and it is probably part of its score that Walt and Sir Thomas are examining in this publicity photo. [An August 18, 2016, update: Alexander Rannie has identified the score as “a conductor’s score of the Stokowski arrangement of ‘Night on Bald Mountain.””] Beecham had arrived in Los Angeles on the Santa Fe Chief on Sunday, February 23, to conduct two concerts by the L.A. Philharmonic on February 27 and 28, in place of its ailing regular conductor, Otto Klemperer. That’s Mrs. Leiland Atherton (Florence) Irish, the Philharmonic’s executive vice president, secretary, and manager, at the left.
Beecham knew how to fill seats in concert halls by stirring up controversy. In the words of his biographer John Lucas, Beecham was a “wily and skilled … self-publicist…he ensured wide press coverage of his arrival in a town by insulting some well-known local institution.” On a preliminary visit to Los Angeles in December, “he told the Los Angeles Times that Hollywood falsified all values and that the whole idea of musical pictures was artistically preposterous”—an opinion that, as he later acknowledged, did not stand in the way of his accepting an invitation to visit the Disney studio.
In February, the day before he visited the studio, Beecham spoke at a luncheon for 300 members of a women’s group supporting the symphony, and once again he was provocative, decrying America’s lack of culture. The Times‘ banner headline read: “Beecham Blast at America Brings Storm of Protest Here.” Concertgoers took the bait. The Times reported “a record audience” and a long ovation for Beecham. In John Lucas’s words, “The publicity did wonders for the orchestra.”
The Times critic Isabel Morse Jones, reviewing the first of Beecham’s two L.A. concerts, wrote that he “conducts in a manner only to be described as picturesque. He mirrors the music in movement. His conducting is photogenic to a degree that should be called to the attention of Walt Disney. His back may not be as effective as Stokowski’s, but his heel and toe work and especially his arm gyrations tell a music-story that is fascinating to watch.”
By then, of course Walt and Beecham had already met, and I know of nothing to suggest that any sort of collaboration was ever discussed. For that matter, Beecham’s visit to the studio may have gone unmarked by the local press; I’ve found no mention of it in the Times or the Evening Herald and Express, the two Los Angeles newspapers I was able to consult.
(Thanks to Becky Cline and Ed Ovalle of the Walt Disney Archives for their help with this piece.)
August 13, 2016:
A Couple of Overdue Reviews
Mickey Mouse: Emblem of the American Spirit
I’ve mentioned this important book a few times before but never given it a proper review, so here goes.
I received Garry Apgar’s Mickey Mouse: Emblem of the American Spirit (Walt Disney Family Foundation Press) when I was reading the eighth volume in Fantagraphics’ Floyd Gottfredson reprint series. That volume is made up in large part of Mickey Mouse daily strips from the 1940s, written by Bill Walsh, who was later an important producer of live-action Disney features. The Mickey of those strips is amorphous, wildly inconsistent from day to day, completely in service to Walsh’s gags and hardly a character at all.
That’s why Apgar’s title, and his book itself, are so apt, because he does indeed emphasize Mickey Mouse’s role as an “emblem,” a powerful, essentially abstract design that he suggests evokes the “American spirit,” rather than a real character on the order of Donald Duck or Bugs Bunny. We all know what Donald Duck is “like,” within broad bounds; but it has not been since the early days of the Mickey Mouse cartoons and comics that anyone could say with the least assurance that Mickey is a certain kind of creature.
Thus the emphasis in Apgar’s book on Mickey as design. Mickey Mouse: Emblem of the American Spirit is above all an art book, not a movie book, not a cartoon book, much less a book about the Mickey Mouse comics (although Apgar pays homage to Gottfredson).You won’t find an entry in the index for many of Mickey’s film roles, not even Fun and Fancy Free (1947), his last starring role in a feature made in Walt Disney’s lifetime. What you will find is a thorough survey of how fine artists have responded to Mickey Mouse as a graphic stimulus over the years, how that “emblem” has worked its way into their minds and then into their work.
Have the artistic results been substantial enough to reward so careful and well-informed an examination as accorded them by Apgar, an art historian with impeccable credentials? I can’t say with any certainty. I found it hard to avoid the sense, at some points in the book, that the author was straining to find artistic significance in work that not only lacked it but was poking fun at the whole solemn idea of such significance. No matter; this is a book that needed to be written, and I can’t imagine that anyone could have written it better, or that it could have been illustrated more richly or produced more beautifully.
It was another aspect of the book that was for me, given my own obsessions, even more absorbing. Apgar’s previous book, A Mickey Mouse Reader (University Press of Mississippi), is a compilation of many of Mickey’s most significant appearances in print, in reviews, interviews (with Walt Disney), journalism and criticism of various kinds. Thanks in part to his immersion in such material, Apgar is able not just to offer well-informed speculation about how Mickey was created but to trace how the accounts of his creation changed over the years.
That there were changes in the official accounts, and especially in who got credit for what, is undeniable, and, I think, understandable. There was, first of all, the scramble in 1928 to come up with a new character; then, when that new character was successful and the press was clamoring for more information, there was the scramble to remember and codify just how that character came to be—and, starting in 1930, work around the awkward reality of Ub Iwerks’s critical role. The creation myths that resulted, like Lillian’s naming of Mickey on the train ride back from New York, probably have more truth in them than there is in most Hollywood fables. In the long (eighty-plus pages) chapter titled “Making the Mouse,” Garry Apgar makes as much sense of this crucial passage in the studio’s life as anyone is ever likely to do. That chapter alone makes the book indispensable to anyone who cares about Walt Disney and his works.
Mickey Mouse would no doubt be a different and perhaps even better book if it had been published under something other than a Disney imprint—and it surely would have received more attention—but it’s remarkably good as it is. And it is, by the way, available now from amazon.com at a bargain price, $26.58.
How to Be a Disney Historian
I’m represented in Jim Korkis’s How to Be a Disney Historian (Theme Park Press), an anthology of essays by more than a dozen writers with some claim to be “Disney historians.” I balk at that label myself, and I didn’t write a new piece for the book, but rather slightly updated a piece I wrote for this website a few years ago, called “The Approved Narrative” (retitled in the book “The Disney-Approved Narrative”). The substance of that piece is that writing about “Disney history” in today’s environment is a dfficult and sometimes impossible job because the Walt Disney Company’s posture toward independent writers—writers who are not being paid by Disney, and whose work is not under the company’s control—is essentially adversarial. That has always and inevitably been the case to some extent, but it was much less so back in the nineties, when I shared space in the Walt Disney Archives with writers who were, like me, there at the company’s sufferance but not expected to submit to its censorship.
The Korkis book is in part a compendium of advice on how to get around the obstacles that the company throws up in the path of people who want to write about it. Disney is an exceptionally interesting company with a long, rich history, which makes it all the more frustrating that good writers are so often excluded, or subject to debilitating treatment when the company hires them for its own projects, while the doors are thrown open for the likes of Neal Gabler and Sarah Colt. Much of the book’s advice, like preparing thoroughly for interviews, seems obvious, but no doubt there are aspiring historians who need to hear it. More interesting and enjoyable to me were the mini-memoirs by people like Korkis, Leonard Maltin, and Jerry Beck, recounting their own adventures as long-time researchers and writers about Disney history.
A quibble: there’s an essay by the retired Disney archivist, Dave Smith, in which he says: “One of the things I did was to officially determine in 1973 that Mickey Mouse’s birthday was November 18, 1928, at the Colony Theater in New York.” Actually, that date had been established in 1971, through my Carl Stalling interview in Funnyworld No. 13. I pointed out in a note to that interview that the September date for Mickey’s birth that Disney had used for years was incorrect. The interview included as evidence a Powers Cinephone ad with dated quotations from multiple newspapers and trade papers, all clearly identifying November 18 as the premiere date.
Another quibble: Jerry Beck says that “transcribing interviews is the worst part of writing and researching. It is worth paying someone to do this for you.” After transcribing more than 500 tapes, I can agree with that sentiment wholeheartedly, even while rejecting the advice. I tried hiring a transcriber a couple of times, but the transcripts were filled with errors, and correcting them and having them retyped required more of my time than simply making the transcripts myself. That’s not to mention the cost. All of my own transcribing, until sometime in the nineties, was done on an IBM Selectric, and that was indeed tortuous; transcribing on a computer is, if no fun, much easier, especially because errors are so much more easily corrected.
August 6, 2016:
|The Walt Kelly panel, minus Scott Shaw!, who arrived later. From left, Mark Evanier, the moderator, Leonard Maltin, Maggie Thompson, Mike Barrier (who is grinning at the photographer, his wife), and Eric Reynolds.|
Return from Comic-Con
Phyllis and I wound up spending only four nights in San Diego for Comic-Con International, instead of the scheduled five, when Southwest Airlines’ computers crashed systemwide while we were waiting for our plane to arrive from St. Louis. We eventually flew out Thursday morning on Delta, via a circuitous route that took us to Atlanta and then back across the country to San Diego. We are still waiting for an explanation or apology from Southwest.
Fortunately, we did reach the convention center in plenty of time for my two Friday panel appearances. The Walt Kelly hour went especially well, thanks to a strong panel that included Mark Evanier as moderator, Leonard Maltin, Maggie Thompson, Scott Shaw!, and Eric Reynolds, co-editor of Fantagraphics’ outstanding complete reprinting of Pogo. Everyone on the panel loved Kelly’s work, but with an adult sort of love that would probably baffle devotees of, say, Harley Quinn.
The problem with enjoyable panels is that they tend to evaporate from my mind almost immediately, leaving behind only a faint and evocative perfume; I could tell you a little of what I said, but I remember almost nothing of what my fellow panelists said, except that I liked it. Perhaps someone was recording the session and it will turn up eventually on the Web, but I’m not hopeful, not least because the convention center’s sound system did not take kindly to my deep voice (Mark Evanier chastised me twice for not speaking up, but I’m not sure what more I could have done other than swallow the microphone whole).
My “spotlight” panel, near the end of the day, was not nearly so well attended, but it was at least as memorable in its own way, because it was the occasion for me to receive an unexpected Inkpot Award. As Comic-Con’s website says, the award is “given to individuals for their contributions to the worlds of comics, science fiction/fantasy, film, television, animation, and fandom services.” That covers a lot of ground, and the list of award winners from the last forty years or so is imposingly long; but if you read through the list of names, you may be struck, as I was, by how many of them are familiar. Now I have something in common with Steven Spielberg and Ralph Bakshi!
The inkpot statuette itself is a lovely piece of hardware; I believe it was designed by Rick Geary, a Comic-Con mainstay, but my first thought when I saw it was of Daumier. I’m very happy to be recognized for, as the plaque on the statuette says, “achievement in comic arts.” I’ll certainly never get any comparable recognition for my work in animation history—too many heretical opinions, alas—but the Inkpot Award makes up for that.
One of the side benefits of attending Comic-Con is that it can give you a different perspective on your own work. I devoted most of my spotlight session to a Power-Point review of my fan career, by way of explaining how it was that I had diverged so widely from the main track, with its emphasis on superheroes and science fiction. I showed the cover of the first Dell Beany comic book as an example of how vivid and precise were my memories of seeing particular comic books when I was a kid. In this case, I remembered the store and even the rack where I first saw the Beany comic book, but I also remembered that I had not a clue at the time as to who Beany and Bob Clampett were. When the first Beany comic book was published, late in 1951, Little Rock was a year or two away from getting its first TV station. I don’t think Time for Beany, the Clampett puppet show, was ever shown on any local station.
As I skimmed through my history for my spotlight audience, I made a point of not mentioning one of my books, Carl Barks and the Art of the Comic Book. I remain angry and disappointed about that book because the publisher (who also wrecked Funnyworld) produced it shoddily and priced it exorbitantly; then, when it went into a second printing, he corrected none of the errors his typesetter made (and none of the errors that I made and subsequently listed on this website).
The next morning, though, as I wandered through the exhibit hall, I ran into a Swedish Barks fan who spoke to me warmly of the book. I realized that however much I resented my publisher’s slovenly handling of the book, its substance—my critical biography of Barks and detailed bibliography of his work—had been only damaged and not destroyed. Carl Barks and the Art of the Comic Book has been superseded in many respects by my most recent book, Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Boooks, but it has not been rendered obsolete. I should have included it among the slides in my PowerPoint presentation.
I’d had another revelation earlier that morning, when I attended a panel discussion devoted to books reprinting the work of cartoonists like Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman, and Charles Schulz. The panelists were Serious Names in the comics world—Paul Levitz of DC, Denis Kitchen, the designer Chip Kidd, and Charles Kochman of Abrams ComicArts—but the attendance was, if not as sparse as for my spotlight session, not much greater. That surprised me at first, but then I realized that the small crowd was just a measure of how the convention has changed over the years. In small sessions like mine, Comic-Con is not a pop-culture extravaganza that draws more than a hundred thousand people, most of them obsessed with the latest movies and TV shows. It is instead still a comics convention, in direct line from the much smaller gatherings of thirty or forty years ago. It’s remarkable, I think, that Comic-Con’s organizers still pay homage to their roots in this fashion. I hope they continue to do so.
I came away from Comic-Con much better disposed toward the whole con idea than I was before. I have no idea if I’ll ever attend another one, but I’m glad I attended this one.
|I shared the speakers’ table for my “spotlight” session with Randy Duncan, who teaches and writes about comics at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. Randy fed me questions and kept me on track as I paged through slides covering the rise and fall and rebirth of my serious interest in comics. Jerry Beck took this photo.|
Click below to go to the “What’s New” Archives.
July 2016: Return to the San Diego Comic-Con.
June 2016: Frame by frame with Michael Hodous, the “live action” Jungle Book, rediscovered Moe Gollub art.
May 2016: More on Walt Kelly’s missing FBI file, a visit to the Will Rogers Memorial.
April 2016: Zootopia, celebrating Mickey’s fiftieth at the Library of Congress.
March 2016: Talking with Jack Kinney in 1986.
February 2016: The search for Walt Kelly’s FBI file, guest posts by Garry Apgar and Patrick Garabdian, Jack and Jane Kinney interviewed in 1976.
January 2016: Some notable animation books, and feedback from some of their authors.
November 2015: Back on the Barks beat after a trip to London.
September 2015: Notable new books on Disney by Canemaker, Kaufman, and Ghez, and on Jay Ward by Darrell Van Citters, a 1976 interview with Wilfred Jackson, “Walt Disney” on PBS, more Song of the South drafts.
August 2015: On the road with Jim Bodrero, John Culhane’s missing book.
July 2015: A West Coast expedition and a Comic-Con report, Wilfred Jackson interviewed in 1973.
April 2015: On the road with Walt Kelly and Carl Barks, a Funnybooks roundup.
March 2015: Gunther Lessing, Michael Sporn on the radio, Funnybooks in review, Gerry Geronimi interviewed.
January 2015: More on Funnybooks, “Those Aggravatin’ Animations,” The Sweatbox.
December 2014: Christmas with Moe Gollub.
November 2014: Funnybooks struggles into print, Frank Frazetta’s animation art, Bob Hope and Bugs Bunny, what jazz’s history has to say about animation’s, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston interviewed in July 1987.
July 2014: The Dell Comics Club, a batch of book reviews, the passing of Sody Clampett, a better picture of Carl Barks, “internal” versus “instrumental” motives in the animation industry.
June 2014: The Fairest One of All reviewed, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Carl Barks’s first published work, Walt and Diane Disney in Chicago in 1943, more on “concept art,” the myth of the missing Disney credits, Felidae.
March 2014: John Stanley’s 100th birthday, remembering Michael Sporn and Robin Allan, seeing Frozen and Saving Mr. Banks.
January 2014: The death of Michael Sporn.
October 2013: Checking in after a long absence.
August 2013: Walt Kelly’s centennial, Willie Ito on Corny Cole, Floyd Norman on Saving Mr. Banks.
July 2013: Saving Mr. Banks.
May 2013: Bob Clampett’s 100th birthday.
April 2013: Barks on ice, where Walt was on February 28, 1957.
March 2013: Fess Parker in Norway, watching The Perfect American, a day in the life of Walt Kelly in 1969.
February 2013: To the lobby with Dave Fleischer, treats for animation history buffs, filming Third Man on the Mountain.
January 2013: The Perfect American opens in Madrid, the Chuck Jones Experience in Las Vegas.
November 2012: The Kimball book controversy, John Stanley’s last workplace.
October 2012: Walt Kelly’s Bridgeport, Bob Clampett and “Tarzantoons.”
September 2012: Caricatures in Dell comic books, the Fred Harman Art Museum, Chuck Jones in Santa Fe.
August 2012: More on the flypaper sequence, several books of note.
July 2012: Leon Schlesinger builds morale, Phil Monroe interviewed (1987), Brave.
June 2012: The Milky Way, Walt Kelly in hard covers, Phil Monroe interviewed (1976).
November 2011: A bumper crop of comics reprints, a day in the life of the MGM cartoon studio in 1953, Gunther Schuller on Fantasia, speaking truth to the Mouse, My Dog Tulip.
October 2011: Helen Aberson and the writing of Dumbo, comic books and color, a caricature of Dick Huemer.
September 2011: Oskar Lebeck and John Stanley and friends.
April 2011: More on Walt’s church in Chicago and the Dumbo Roll-A-Book, Lynn Karp interviewed.
February 2011: Tim Walker and Mark Kausler, the Bob McKimson interview and more McKimson matter, the Huffington Post stirs up a storm.
January 2011: Flogging the Dell/Disney comic books, Tangled, potpourris of items about Walt Disney and Bob Clampett and new books, Glen Keane speaks about Tangled in French, a “Flying Gauchito” mystery, Walt meets Princess Margaret and suffers under a double standard.
December 2010: Home again, with a memory of True Grit‘s author.
November 2010: Carl Stalling on acetate, lost Laugh-O-grams found, Børge Ring on Alice in Wonderland, Tim Susanin’s book.
September 2010: John Benson on Avatar and IMAX 3-D, Mike Maltese and his Bugs Bunny painting, Craig Yoe writes, Satoshi Kon, The Ducktators in the flesh, Chronicle Books’ animation volumes.
July 2010: Toy Story 3, Milt Gray’s web comic strip, sad news about Roy Rogers and Harvey Pekar, my 1997 interview with John K., more on the mysterious Mortimer Mouse, reprinted comic books.
June 2010: Dave Smith retires, more on the Dumbo Roll-A-Book, Barks on a T-shirt, Waking Sleeping Beauty.
May 2010: “Mickey Mouse” and D-Day, animation: the delusion of life, Børge Ring on Jack Kinney, my visit to Moscow and Saint Petersburg, George Sherman’s Barks painting, more on the Dumbo Roll-A-Book.
April 2010: How to Train Your Dragon, Carl Barks tells how he worked, Fantasia and the fundamentalists
March 2010: More on the Dumbo Roll-A-Book, questions for Walt Disney, the “family tree” of animation, a 1967 gathering of pioneers at Montreal, Dumbo‘s premiere, Dumbo in print, Walt’s adventures in the Ivy League, Fess Parker remembered.
November 2009: On the sidewalk with Charlie Mintz, a visit to Saint Louis, when Fantasia spread out, on the barricades with Art Babbitt.
October 2009: “Sincerity,” Ward Kimball photographs R. Crumb, Walt Kelly writes to Walt Disney, losing illusions in today’s Hollywood animation business, more on Walt Disney at Harvard (and Yale), Art Spiegelman in Arkansas, the Walt Disney Family Museum opens its doors.
September 2009: What Walt Disney was doing in London in 1935 and New York in 1940, George Winkler and Andrew Stone and Charlie Mintz, Walt Disney and Norman Rockwell, Dr. Seuss’ advertising films, Li’l Eight Ball’s disappearance from comic books, shipboard with Walt and family in 1949, the curious case of Mortimer Mouse.
August 2009: Carl Barks on exhibit in Baltimore, the mystery of Barks’s Donald Duck, Lillian Disney speaks in public, early omens on The Princess and the Frog, Classic Children’s Comics, Walt Disney in Ireland, home again from a long summer journey.
May 2009: Reading the funnies in bulk, Keith Lango’s ideas about “visual harmony,” Walt Disney goes to Harvard, John Canemaker goes to Kansas City, Sita Sings the Blues, Disney and Columbia, fictitious “Walt Disneys” on stage and screen, David Gerstein’s blog, Monsters vs. Aliens, more on Dave Hand, Milt Kahl as “the animation Michelangelo.”
April 2009: Easter greetings from Warner Bros. Cartoons, Børge Ring on David Hand, Ken Annakin, Dick Huemer, Floyd Norman, Ferguson’s flypaper sequence revisited, Disney’s walled garden, Don Bluth, the Walt Disney Family Museum, Bob Clampett’s secret life.
March 2009: Walt Kelly comics from Fairy Tale Parade, Chuck Jones on TCM, Walt Disney at Dumbo‘s premiere, Emil Flohri, Coraline, Watchmen, in the Disney music rooms in 1931, a case of mistaken identity, ten years of Hollywood Cartoons.
February 2009: Acting in animation, with a riveting memory of Bill Tytla, Coraline, 3-D pro and con, cartoon cocktails, the first Disney annual report, Marceline faces from Walt Disney’s time, a Marceline myth.
January 2009: “The Three Little Pigs” as drawn by Walt Kelly, Ted Eshbaugh’s studio in 1931, “card check” in 1941 and 2009, The Tale of Despereaux, Walt Disney sails from Chile to New York on the Santa Clara.
December 2008: The Spirit on the screen, cartoon directors’ Christmas cards, trying to identify a mystery man, books: Spirited Away, Popeye, and The Animated Man, Bolt and Madagascar 2, Dave Hilberman’s FBI file.
October 2008: The Wall Street Journal on Pixar and Disney,Walt at the keyboard, Chuck Jones and Eddie Selzer, Chuck at MGM, “Directors and Directions,” salvaging Disney’s California Adventure, Walt Disney’s attitude toward women, “Of Cabbages and Kleins,” The Perfect American as novel and opera, on the set of Invitation to the Dance.
August 2008: Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising remembered, Michael Sporn’s role on The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, more on Wertham, Sporn DVDs.
July 2008: More Looney Tunes on DVD, WALL•E and Kung Fu Panda, Walt Disney’s stump, Bill Tytla’s voice, Disney anniversaries, Wertham’s locked vault, Schulz and Peanuts demolished, more on Walt and Dolores.
May-June 2008: Walt Disney’s Kansas City building, Walt and polo (and polo-related deaths), Japanese features, Walt and Dolores Del Rio, late-period Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett in Canada, Walt Disney meets Robert Taylor in 1938 and visits Marceline and Saint Louis in 1946, the post-modern Goofy, The Colored Cartoon.
April 2008: The Jones-Avery letter, what Walt Disney really thought about Goofy, the “Censored 11,” Borge Ring on Hans Perk, remembering Ollie Johnston, Two Days in the Life: Kansas City, 1922, more on Walt Disney’s 1922 want ads, Walt’s skeptical supervisor at Kansas City Film Ad, Bob Clampett and Ollie Johnston share a table, the Schulz kidnaping, Nick Cross and The Waif of Persephone.
March 2008: Walt Disney’s want ads in 1922, Dick Huemer’s Buck O’Rue, A Day in the Life: Disney, January 1930 and February 1927, A Day in the Life: Walt Kelly, 1955, The Animated Man in trade paper, Walt Disney meets Yma Sumac and visits Atlanta, responding to complaints about negative criticism, Bob Clampett at work, “What Would Bob Do?”
February 2008: Walt Disney and Joan Bennett in 1942, an interview with Elias and Flora Disney, debate about Buckaroo Bugs, Emery Hawkins at Lantz, Walt Disney in England, Carl Barks’s first issue of Uncle Scrooge, Jim Bodrero interview, photos of Warner story man Lloyd Turner, remembering Roger Armstrong.
January 2008: Dell comic books, Ward Kimball, Chuck Jones, Joe Grant and hero worship, more on writing for animation (and why some people spread falsehoods about it), Walt Disney’s 1934 trip to Hawaii, Hanna-Barbera celebrated in a book, Bob Clampett, Satoshi Kon, more on the voices of Walt’s Alice.
December 2007: Writing for animation, Margaret O’Brien and Walt Disney’s Alice, Jack Zander, more on UPA, Rod Scribner at work, Borge Ring, a “mystery studio,” Byron Haskin and Disney’s Treasure Island, more on Coal Black, Walt and Lillian on the town, revisiting Raggedy Ann & Andy and Wizards, Satoshi Kon’s budgets.
November 2007: Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs, Mickey’s birthplace in New York, the UPA book, the Michael Sporn retrospective at MoMA, the ideas that interviews can stimulate.
October 2007: Carl Stalling interviewed, Dick Huemer remembered, more on Walt Disney and Zorro, the controversy over the Schulz biography, Joe Penner and the “Agony, agony!” catchphrase, Walt and The Art Spirit, Walt in Hawaii, the Ottawa International Animation Festival, The Jungle Book revisited.
August 2007: Walt and the librarians, independent animators, the mystery of Walt’s Goldwater button solved, Diane Disney Miller blasts Neal Gabler, Paprika, interviews with Clarence Nash, Jim Macdonald, and Billy Bletcher, Pete Emslie’s guidelines for animal characters, Ratatouille.
July 2007: More on Harry Reichenbach, Walt Disney and Igor Stravinsky, Surf’s Up, Walt at Smoke Tree Ranch, Dave Hilberman, The Iron Giant revisited, Michael Sporn and Walter Lantz on DVD, Ratatouille.
June 2007: More on Walt Disney’s Goldwater button, more on the flypaper sequence, Roger Armstrong, Disney in Deutschland, Ratatouille, Walt and Zorro, more on Walt and T. H. White, Harry Reichenbach and Steamboat Willie, the auctioning of Carl Barks’s estate.
May 2007: UPA wars on the blogs, Ferguson’s flypaper sequence, Walt Disney’s employment contract, Harry Reichenbach, Disney art at Montreal, Walt writes to T. H. White, selling The Animated Man in L.A.
April 2007: The Animated Man, Fergy ruffs, Meet the Robinsons.
March 2007: The Animated Man, Cartoon Brew Films, a Cock Robin mosaic and documents, a Dumbo essay, the Goldwater button again, Walt and the space program.
September 2006: Walt’s Field Day, Song of the South drafts, thoughts on DVD audio commentaries.
July-August 2006: Cars, blogs.
June 2006: Cars, Over the Hedge, Coal Black, Fischinger.
May 2006: Cars, various books.
December 2005: Barks on DVD, Mary Poppins, Michael Sporn.
September 2005: Animated acting, Miyazaki.
April-May 2005: Madagascar, Joe Grant, Marceline (Mo.), Barks versus Stanley, Robots.
February 2005: Loonatics, Looney Tunes on DVD.
December 2004: Fess Parker and Frank Tashlin interviewed.
November 2004: SpongeBob SquarePants, the illusion of spontaneity in computer animation, The Incredibles.
October 2004: Roy Rogers in Branson, The Polar Express, Richard Todd, “ViewMaster Animation.”
September 2004: Frank Thomas, the Barrier-Kricfalusi debate continues.
July-August 2004: The Barrier-Kricfalusi debate, John Fawcett, Walt Kelly.