Opus 128 (November 23, 2003). Our feature this time, at the end of the scroll-an appreciation of Walt Disney's achievement on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of Mickey Mouse's "birth," plus reviews of books reprinting The Norm and Milton Caniff's Steve Canyon and other tomes-Hirschfeld's The Speakeasies of 1932, Vernon Grant's Santa Claus, Mark Evanier's Wertham Was Right!; and the usual smattering of news-Frazetta as the power behind the throne, Don Simpson teamed with Al Franken, Frank Cho's workload, the annual "cartoon issue" of The New Yorker, the mystery of the Bermuda Triangle solved at last, political correctness for team mascots, and other topics, briefly.
NOUS R US. One theory is that famed illustrator and one-time comic book artist Frank Frazetta (and Al Capp's ghost on Li'l Abner) is responsible for Arnold Schwarzenegger's election as governor of California. Arnold was elected because he's a movie star, and he wouldn't be a movie star were it not for his muscular turn as Conan in the movie of that name; and if Frazetta hadn't provided paperback book cover illos of Robert E. Howard's grunting primitive, Conan would never have reached the heights of pulp popularity that attracted the attention of movie-makers. In support of this theory, John Milius, director of the Conan film, says he borrowed Frazetta imagery in making the film. So there. You never know: you might get what you ask for. ... John Saunders, who has written Mary Worth since taking over from his father, Allen, in 1979, died November 15 at the age of 79; it was the elder Saunders who assumed writing the strip in 1938 and changed its name from Apple Mary, which is what it was entitled when Martha Orr started it in 1932. "The nosey old lady," as John Saunders called his eponymous heroine, hasn't been very active in the strip of late, but he kept writing right up to the end. "Just twenty-four hours before he died," his wife said, "he dictated something to me." John made his living in television: he joined Toledo's first tv station in 1951 and worked there as a newsman and broadcaster (and sometimes weatherman) until he retired in 1979 to take over writing the comic strip that has been called the medium's first soap opera strip (a popular misconception: The Gumps, beginning in 1917, was the first of this genre.) Mary Worth appears these days in about 350 newspapers-almost always clustered with Rex Morgan, M.D., and Judge Parker. ... I ran into Don Simpson during a reception at the annual meeting of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists last June; he told me he was working on a book with Al Franken, who was the guest speaker that evening. The December issue of Funny Times printed evidence of this collaboration, a send-up comic strip entitled The Gospel of Supply Side Jesus, in which our hero, deploying the fiscal dexterity of an Eron exec, gets the mob surrounding Pontius Pilate's balcony to vote to release him and crucify the other guy (who is Jesus of Nazareth) by offering twenty shekels to anyone who votes for him; he wins, naturally. ... Odd coupling: Greg Melvin, an editor at Universal Press syndicate, edits both Aaron McGruder's The Boondocks and Ann Coulter's weekly conservative spew. ... Correction: the name of the newspaper in White Plains, NY, for which Harvey Pekar will be producing a column is the Journal News; the name of the column is, apparently, "Obscurity Knocks." Pekar's first was about Herman Melville novels that aren't Moby Dick. ... Frank Cho is still plugging away on an 8-issue miniseries for Marvel about Shanna the She-Devil, who will, one hopes, wear as little as possible throughout; and Cho is also producing new material for the Liberty Meadows comic book from Image-about 30% of the strips in each issue are new, not reprints, he tells me. And Cho was cover-featured on the latest issue of Comic Book Artist (well, actually, it's the toothsome Brandy who's on the cover). Inside, Cho reveals that Marvel won't bring out the Shanna series until all eight issues are in house; and then Cho will have 4 more issues of "something" to do to complete his 12-issue contract with the House of Ideas. Meanwhile, he's re-signed with Creators Syndicate for international distribution of Liberty Meadows. Under the terms of the new deal, Cho won't be censored (overseas editors and readers are less puritanical than Americans); the syndicate will be distributing Liberty Meadows as it appears in the Image comics, where Cho has restored much of the previously excised material and, as I said, added new stuff. ...
In early November, Robert Mankoff, cartoon editor at The New Yorker, delivered himself of five lectures on cartoons and humor to the psychology faculty and journalism fellows at the University of Michigan. The idea, apparently, originated with the chair of the psychology department, Rich Gonzalez, who aspires to develop a center on the study of humor. "Right now," he said, "our faculty doesn't study humor." They've probably never heard the old saw about the inadvisability for hot dog lovers of knowing how sausages are made. Maybe Mankoff hasn't either. On the "art" of humor, he outlined several methods of achieving laughs, including "taking an idea to the extreme, but then egging us to see it another way." As an example, he offered a cartoon showing a clutch of businessmen sitting around a conference table, one of whom saying, "On the one hand, eliminating the middleman will result in lower costs, increased sales, and greater consumer satisfaction. On the other hand, we're the middlemen." Funny. But as an examplary cartoon, it relies much too much upon the verbal content and very little upon the visual. There is, in short, none of the blend of word and picture by which the best cartoons achieve the risible impact that economy of expression can produce, a shortcoming too often displayed in the magazine lately.
Mankoff also talked about how the humor in today's New Yorker is different from its humor in its early years. In the 1920s, he observed (according to Aymar Jean writing for the Michigan Daily), "cartoons tended to be aristocratic, elaborate and sometimes anti-Semitic. Cartoonists highlighted class divisions, representative of the city's burgeoning wealthy, growing immigrant population and rising economic inequality." Well, yes-but the butts of the jokes tended to be those upper class aristocrats and their pretensions; the magazine was scarcely championing snobbery. Today's cartoons, Mankoff said, tend to be simpler and more democratic than the cartoons of the twenties. True, but it's still the pretentious who are being ridiculed.
I'd scarcely finished reading about Mankoff's collegiate pontifications when the annual "cartoon issue" of The New Yorker arrived (dated November 17), and I again extend mixed salutations. It's good for the artform that The New Yorker, one of the last bastions of magazine cartooning, champions the medium in this conspicuous way. But the package has been a disappointment every year since the inaugural issue in 1997, when, under Tina Brown, the celebration of cartooning included a few text pieces about cartoonists and cartooning as well as a generous sampling of cartoons. This year's festivities consist only of an 18-page section of cartoons, including five two-pagers. These, since they consume so much more space in the magazine than the usual cartoon, we must assume constitute the major fanfare for the form. Mankoff is doubtless patting himself on the back for this innovative approach to cartoon comedy. Because four of the two-pagers are mob scenes, the speeches of the participants are displayed in balloons-of which there are usually not many in evidence in The New Yorker. Maybe that's an aesthetic advance. But there could have been any number of articles to accompany the cartoons. Surely someone has written something insightful about the most "New Yorker" cartoonist of the century, Al Hirschfeld, who died last year. But, no-nothing like that. Only a cutesy paragraph explaining how to do Mankoff's "cartoon crossword," alas, the only unusual tidbit in this year's commemorative issue. The issue's saving grace is a cover by Gary Larson (engineered, doubtless, to boost sales of his two-volume reprinting of the entire run of The Far Side).
On the eve of his return, here's a scrap of Opus history that I found on the label of a jar of Honest Tea, the brew fiendishly concocted to fill the niche between sweet (like a soda drink) and unsweetened (like bottled water). The label on the Peach Oo-la-long tea bears the likeness of Opus in full luxuriant color and on the back is this explanation: "A tea-drinking penguin? Berkeley Breathed (the creator of Bloom County and one of our first customers) would tease us by adding a packet of sweetener to our bottled teas. So we made an offer no biped could refuse: if Opus posed for the label, we'd make a tad sweeter, but not too sweet, tea. Voila! Peach Oo-la-long -one third the calories of other bottled tea drinks and just enough peachy sweetness to complement the great taste of organic oolong tea. Opus likes it on ice." Is there no end of promotional gimmicks with this deformed penguin? (I liked him better in the early years before his beak became elephantine. Exaggeration, in this case, did not, I ween, improve the cartoon image.)
According to Editor & Publisher (November 17), Opus debuted on Sunday November 23 in 170 newspapers. A good start. A very good start. The Boondocks, once touted as making a record-breaking debut, started with about 160. Berke Breathed isn't a new guy like Aaron McGruder was, so the comparison is more oolong than apples, but according to David Astor in E&P, many new strips these days begin with only 25 clients. The Opus situation is even more impressive, a syndicate official pointed out, because samples were shown only in person-no sales effort by mail, which limited the effort. And the samples weren't left with the potential client either. It was show and tell and then leave with the goods. The objective was to keep the strip off the Internet until it actually began. Moreover, since running Opus in most papers would require the paper to drop two Sunday strips to make room, the odds against the strip were stacked even higher. Syndicate editorial director Alan Shearer even suggested some "old" strips to retire because their originators were dead: Shoe, Andy Capp, and Barney Google and Snuffy Smith. For a reaction to this sort of thinking, see Mort Walker's open letter in Opus 127 (last time).
BOOK REVIEWS. Just in time for the season is this tidy tome, Vernon Grant's Santa Claus (60 6.5x10-inch pages in color and hardback, Abrams; $14.95 from Bud Plant). Born in 1902 in a sod house in South Dakota, Vernon Grant made a career out of light-hearted subjects in magazine illustration, deploying cartoonish characters rendered with vivid flat colors, slightly relieved with layered hues but not with graduated shades at all. Growing up on the prairie, Grant was taught by his mother, who had attended the Art Institute of Chicago. The family moved to southern California when the boy was a teenager, and he attended the University of Southern California for two years, where he took business law and public speaking courses because there were no art classes, working his way by doing chalktalks on the vaudeville circuit. At 21, he was able to enroll in his mother's alma mater; there, he discovered his flair for drawing gnomes and fanciful insects. He returned to California and taught art in Los Angeles for five years then left in 1932 for New York with $11 in his pocket. He was down to his last two bits when he landed a commission illustrating a deck of playing cards with his gnomes. Before long, his work was appearing regularly on the covers of Collier's, Ladies Home Journal and other magazines throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Grant died in 1990, but he is remembered today for his incarnations of the Rice Krispy elves, Snap, Crackle and Pop. He loved drawing Santa Claus, too, and this book collects over two dozen of his spritely interpretations of the jolly old elf, each picture accompanied by some scrap of well-remembered Yuletide poetry or prose. Francis Church's "Yes, Virginia-There Is a Santa Claus" editorial from the New York Sun is here, as is Clement Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas" and a couple pieces by Charles Dickens and a poem by William Wordsworth and several other fragments and verses by others. (For more about Grant, visit http://www.yorkcounty.org/museum/VernonGrant/abtvern.html )
And here, another treasure, is The Speakeasies of 1932, a collection of drawings by Al Hirschfeld accompanied with text by the artist and his friend Gordon Kahn, describing the ambiance and habitues of some 40 of New York's extra-legal saloons and giving recipes for the favorite concoction at each (96 giant 9x12-inch pages in hardcover; Glenn Young Books, $32.95). The artist's dedication, written in January 2003, may be his last writing for publication; he died before the month was out. "Gordon Kahn and I inadvertently chronicled the end of an era," Hirschfeld writes. "The year after this book's original publication, 1933, Prohibition was repealed. The Roaring Twenties had already succumbed to the Depression. About the best thing you could say of the next few years was that people could at last cry in their beers legally. You are very welcome, I'm sure, to all your critical reservations about this book, but let nobody dare say it was not well-researched. This may be the best damned researched book ever! Every single specialite de la maison was tried over and over by my pal Gordon Kahn and me until we passed out testing it for our reading public." Here's the recipe for "Smoke" at O'Leary's on the Bowery: "Dissolve two cans of Sterno in boiling water. Sir until lumps disappear. Continue boiling for 15 minutes, adding water to taste. While mixture is cooling, tear cardboard shoe box in two inch squares and drop into liquid. This draws out any poisons supposed to lurk in the mixture. Remove cardboard after fifteen minutes, add a liberal pinch of tobacco for coloring. Let stand until cool. But for God's sake, don't drink it."
Many of these storied establishments depicted herein still stand, and, for those that do, the current address is given. About the Dizzy Club (64 W. 52nd Street), the authors write: "The Club motto is 'A rolling tomato gathers no mayonnaise.' Other epigrammatic daisies on the wall state that when Anthony entered Cleopatra's tent he didn't go there to make a speech; that many a man found in pajamas was not always asleep, and that paying alimony to a wife is like buying oats for a dead horse." This re-issue of the book originally entitled Manhattan Oases starts with an introduction by journalist Pete Hamill, who reminds us of what life was like during Prohibition ("the preposterous American social experiment ... [that embodied] the invincible stupidity of those who embrace what George Orwell once called 'the smelly little orthodoxies'") and rehearses a few salient biographical details, and ends with an essay about Kahn by his son Tony, who recalls that his father was among the Hollywood writers blacklisted during the McCarthy Era but was never disowned by his artist friend and fellow researcher. The Hirschfeld drawings that accompany the bistro descriptions are probably the reason most of us would buy this book (although, as I hope I've made seductively clear, there are ample other pleasant justifications for owning it), and in the drawings, we meet a different style of illumination than the classic linear imagery we associate with the master caricaturist. Hirschfeld's fabled manner was just emerging at the time he drew these pictures, most of which are much looser, sketchier renditions, embellished with an unaccustomed grease crayon or smattering wash. I think of The New Yorker's Alan Dunn or Garrett Price as I look at these; but there are a few in the honored style, too.
Mark Evanier's latest collection of columns recycled from the Comics Buyer's Guide and elsewhere, Wertham Was Right! (200 5.5x8.5-inch pages in paperback; TwoMorrows, $12.95), is both lively and compendious. And occasionally decorated by Sergio Aragones' drawings. This is Evanier's second such collection; I missed the first, but after dipping into this one, I'm going back to get the earlier tome, Comic Books and Other Necessities of Life (also from TwoMorrows, $17). Evanier has added to or modified his columns for this reprinting, and the result is that he approaches encyclopedic dimensions on some topics. His rehearsal of what Fredric Wertham did, for instance, is both far-reaching and thoughtful. Evanier reminds us that Wertham, so long the bogeyman of funnybook history, wrote things other than The Seduction of the Innocent, by which, in 1954, he is credited with sounding the death knell for EC Comics and other publishing worthies, thus ringing down the curtain on the Golden Age. Among Wertham's other accomplishments: he inspired reform of "some of the more inhumane practices of incarceration"; and an article of his on "Psychological Effects of School Segregation" was "an influential bit of evidence in the 1954 Supreme Court ruling, 'Brown vs. Board of Education,' that declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional." And Evanier's essay on James F. Davis and the Fox and Crow comics is a mini-history; I can't imagine needing to know any more than is here (and I'm a passionate Fox and Crow fan). I miss Mark's work in CBG, long the forum for his engaging anecdotes of comics history and tv adventures; but you can find him on the Web, www.povonline.com, and I rejoice at having a healthy dose at hand in this book.
REPRINT REVIEWS. If you've managed to miss Michael Jantze's comic strip, The Norm, since it began in August 1996 (the 12th, I believe), you now have a chance to catch up. Jantze is reprinting the strip in a series of magazines entitled, as you might expect, The Norm Magazine. The first came out a month or so ago, and No. 2 is now looming on the horizon: you can order it in the November Previews. The Norm is one of the three or four best drawn strips in the medium. It is also the most innovative comic strip conception in the history of the medium for at least the last 50 years and a consistent exemplar of imaginative use of the artform's visual and verbal resources. With this sort of achievement before you, you should expect that a reprint magazine wouldn't be your ordinary reprint magazine either. And you'd be right. In the first issue, every strip is amplified by prose text underneath. The conceit of the strip is, when you think about it, astonishingly simple. (This is an off-hand unexamined assertion akin to Samuel Johnson's celebrated analysis of Gulliver's Travels: Once you have thought of little men and big men, you have the whole of it. Ahhh, but the genius was in thinking of the little men and the big men.) The strip is a sort of diary of its protagonist, who launches most installments by looking out at us and introducing the topic of the day-after which, the strip commences, an illustration of or an ironic comment upon the topic and Norm's way of introducing it. Here, for instance, is Norm talking to us on August 28, 1996: "I have a confession to make," he says: "I-I clipped coupons yesterday." In the next panel, we see some of the foodstuffs Norm acquired by coupon, and the caption reads: "It started so innocently. A buck off Captain Crunch. 50 cents off Waffos. The more I clipped, the more I saved!" Then comes the concluding panel, now in the regular narrative mode of a comic strip, showing Norm's friend (then), Reine, looking at a box in her hand and saying, "But Norm, you don't need feminine protection." And Norm, hysterical, yells: "I had a coupon!" That's the strip as originally published. In the magazine, Jantze adds Norm's footnote: "Coupon-itis: I blame my mother for this disease. She honestly had a coupon wallet separate from her photo wallet and her money wallet and her credit card wallet. I know what you're thinking, but, I mean, if I can't blame my parents for this one, then what role do they play in this young guy's life?" A few days later, Norm tells us, "My friend Reine may seem sensitive, but ..." And then come four panels of normal comic strip narrative, beginning with Norm exclaiming to Reine, "Ah! I just noticed my shirt matches my pants!" "So?" says Reine. Norm: "Well, I have an outfit on!" Reine: "That's bad?" Norm: "Women wear outfits! Children wear outfits! Men don't wear outfits!"Reine: "Chill, Norm. I think you look 'nice'." Norm: "Nice? Auggh!" With the narrative juxtaposed to the opening statement, we have the strip's ironic commentary on Reine's supposed sensitivity. And the text underneath takes it the next step: "Allow me to hand out some free advice to the ladies in the audience. Never- ever -tell a guy he looks nice. Nice is a city in France. And I can't think of one guy who willingly wants to go there." A whole magazine of these gems, kimo sabe. The strip, and the magazine, brims with warm candor and caring insight about life and relationships, sometimes cheerfully philosophical, always humorous. But the main thing about this strip is that it is readily apparent that Jantze loves what he is doing. He loves the medium, and he loves to play with it. This abiding affection is revealed by the strip's unusual rhetoric and its exploitation of the nature of the medium itself; those are the signs that we're witnessing, here, the joy of performance. And it's a treat to witness it. Don't miss this one, merely $4.95 at your local comic book shop (or look for it at www.TheNorm.com).
And while we're contemplating rarities, Bill Holbrook tells me that the first hardcover collection of his online comic strip, Kevin & Kell, is now available from Plan Nine Publishing (www.plan9.org). "It's also available in paperback," Holbrook said, "as are two new collections of my King Features strips," On the Fastrack and Safe Havens. The latter reprint strips from 2002; the K&K book, from October 2001 to July 2002. Holbrook's strips, all three of them-which he draws, by hand, day-by-day-number among my favorites as exuberantly inventive explorations of the capacities of the medium. More joyful performances.
Checker Book Publishing Group near Milton Caniff's hometown of Dayton, Ohio, has produced the first volume in its projected Steve Canyon reprint series, Milton Caniff's Steve Canyon: 1947 (148 6.5x10-inch paperback pages, $14.95). The plan, apparently, is to devote a volume to each year of the strip, but this is at least the third time some entrepreneurial publisher has reprinted Steve's first adventures, and the famous opening sequence-a whole week of strips goes by without our seeing the title character in person-is all too familiar to any Caniffite. A tabloid paper, following the Menomonee Falls Gazette model, tried reprinting the strip in the 1970s; and Kitchen Sink Press published an impressive run of magazines and trade paperbacks, carrying the continuity up to April 1958 before the project had to be abandoned as KSP went down the drain. Alas, I don't have much hope for this project. Had they picked up where KSP left off, they'd have at least the stalwart Caniffans on board: we'd all like to complete our archival runs of Steve Canyon. But by starting over, again, at the beginning, Checker is banking on attracting a whole new bunch of readers, and I'm not sure they're out there.
The first years of Steve Canyon were probably the best: Caniff regaled us with free-wheeling soldier-of-fortune adventures for the first three-and-a-half years. Then came the Korean War, and Steve Canyon was called up to serve in the Air Force. He never returned to civilian life. During 1947, we meet many of the strip's repertory cast-the grizzled Happy Easter, Copper Calhoon, Feeta Feeta, Delta, the pneumatic Madame Lynx-so Checker's first volume is a fond nostalgic trip. Printed on slick paper and using first-class syndicate proofs (I assume, from the evidence), the quality is here. But the strategy isn't. The page size is too small: in 1947, strips were published larger than they are today, and this book's 6-inch dimension, approximating today's standard measure, isn't spacious enough. Visual details, while superbly reproduced, appear almost too small to see; ditto the lettering in the speech balloons. And some of the proofs (from the Madame Lynx sequence in the fall) are the cropped kind. Syndicates produced strips at two sizes in those days: the full-size (reproducing all the artwork) and a reduced size (arrived at by cropping about an inch or so of the artwork off the bottom of the strips). The horizontal dimension remained the same, but clipping off the artwork at the bottom made the speech balloons prominent (and since Caniff was wordy to begin with, this maneuver reduced his strip to panels of lettering mostly).
But the thing about this project that really frosts me is the happy disregard for fact and truth that prevails in the few pages of text that the publisher, one Mark Thompson, has squeezed into the book. Here's the list of blatant errors: Joseph Patterson, publisher of the New York Daily News and the step-father of Caniff's Terry and the Pirates, was "Captain Patterson," not "General"; Caniff was 4-F during World War II, not 12-F (as far as I know, there wasn't such a classification); Canyon was in the Reserves when the Korean War broke out and was therefore called up, he didn't re-enlist; it is strenuously implied that Caniff gave up writing the strip in the last decade or so of its run, but he continued writing Canyon's adventures to the very end-until he, Caniff, was dying; Caniff did not "rebel" against syndicate ownership of Terry: he was seduced away by Marshall Field, who wanted top-flight comic strips for his new newspaper in Chicago, the Sun; Caniff owned the copyright to Canyon but he didn't syndicate it himself as it is (laughably) asserted here. And, a final flagrant inaccuracy, Caniff is pictured on the back cover with a woman called "his wife"-but she is no such thing. I suspect the woman in the picture is Mrs. Billy DeBeck or maybe E&P's Helen Stanton, but I'm not sure. I am sure, however, that it isn't Bunny Caniff. It is patently clear that Thompson, in composing these breathless effusions, is winging it completely, that he hasn't checked a single fact and is simply writing off the top of his head. Too bad.
I'm not sure, without doing more checking than I care to this morning, where the reprinting of Steve Canyon stands at the moment. The aforementioned and sadly defunct Menomonee Falls Gazette reprinted a lot of the strip from the seventies, I think; and Rick Norwood's Comics Revue is filling in the remaining gaps (currently, strips from the sixties). The Revue is a viable operation: $45/12 monthly issues, which include such vintage works as Modesty Blaise, Dick Moores' Gasoline Alley, Casey Ruggles, Buz Sawyer, and, from the 1930s, Little Orphan Annie, Krazy Kat, The Phantom, and Alley Oop (before the time machine years); P.O. Box 336, Mountain Home, TN 37684.
CIVILIZATION'S LAST OUTPOST. According to an article in the November 14 issue of The Week, the mysterious disappearances that have characterized the "Bermuda Triangle" (the area of the Atlantic between Miami, Bermuda, and Puerto Rico) are caused by giant bubbles of methane gas, released on the ocean floor and rising to the surface of the water, whereupon they capsize ships or increase the heat of the engines in airplanes overhead, causing them to explode. Methane gas. Ocean farts. Those disappearing ships and airplanes-destroyed by ocean farts. You can believe what you want, but I say, this theory stinks. ... Jennifer Lopez will wear false eyelashes only if they're made from real fox fur, and only the famed hairdresser Oribe is permitted to do J.Lo's hair (at $15,000/ day); and when her eyebrows need plucking, she sends a private jet to New York for her favorite beautician at $50,000 round trip. Conspicuous consumption has gone mad. ... Stephen King, writer of gothic horror books, received the National Book Foundation's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters last week in New York. Various dignified literary types were miffed at this, allowing as how horror novels aren't, really, literature enough for such an award. They're fun to read; real literature isn't fun, apparently. Time's Lev Grossman wonders why it is that, as a culture, we don't think real "literature" should be fun; and, by the same token, if a book we read is fun, it probably isn't literature. "I'm sure some psychiatrist somewhere has a name for associating pleasure with shame," he says, "but I think we can all agree that it's a little sick." The name, Lev, is "puritan."
Last month, a federal court ruled that the Washington Redskins could keep their name despite protests from Native American activists, who claim "the name is defamatory to the hemisphere's indigenous people." Thus closes the most recent chapter in a long-running struggle to cleanse our sporting culture of all improper linguistic usages. "The offending images," writes Ken Ringle of the Washington Post, "have ranged from the Sonoma State University Cossacks (ethnic cleansing in Russia) to the Nebraska Wesleyan University Plainsmen (not inclusive of women and minority groups) to the Washington State University (WSU) Wazzu, which has been judged too closely associated with a bodily orifice unbecoming to the university." Similarly, DeSales University lost its Centaur mascot in order to avoid associations with the classical rapine that the Greeks' mythical man-horse seems to have committed. And Wheaton College in Illinois gave up its Crusaders to avoid the taint of religious slaughter perpetrated in the Middle Ages. The St. Petersburg College Trojans were abandoned because the students and alumni could no longer endure condom jokes. (But at Babson College in Massachusetts,
the beaver mascot is hugely popular all of a sudden: it appears on a line of thongs, tank tops, and boxer shorts with the motto, "Beavers Like Wood.") At the University of Illinois, a long-running squabble holds Chief Illiniwek hostage; ditto Monty Montezuma at San Diego State, Apache at Southwestern College, Savages at Southwestern University (both in California), Mohawks at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and Braves at Quinnipiac University (Conn.). Over at Cleveland, however, the Indians remain the Indians-perhaps because they were named for an actual Native American, Louis Sockalexis, a Penobscot Indian with an amazing throwing arm who played for the team near the turn of the last century; previously, the team bore the somewhat creepy name, Spiders.
Remembering Walt Disney on Mickey's 75th. Seventy-five years ago on November 18, a Sunday in 1928, the audience at New York's Colony Theater saw the first talking animated cartoon. But Walt Disney's "Steamboat Willie" was not just an animated cartoon with sound added: here, the sound was integrated with movement, the characters moved in the rhythmic patterns dictated by the beat of the music. The star of "Willie" was, as we all now know, Mickey Mouse, and the rodent became the rock upon which Disney founded an empire, his "Magic Kingdom."
The official birthday date has now passed into history, and I must say, I'm disappointed. I expected a bigger fuss than I've so far seen. Disney hired Andy Mooney to revive the Mouse's image, as I reported here in Opus 120, and Mooney, fresh from his billet at Nike, dubbed Mickey Disney's "swoosh," but the revival of the swoosh seems to have sputtered and fizzled. I went to the local Disney Store on the Hallowed Date (November 18), expecting to see some Mickey manifestation in more than the usual cascade of plush toys, but-nothing. Everything seemed pretty much the same as usual. No flood of Mickey figurines or dolls or engravings or whatever else might have been conjured up to cash in on the occasion. In fact, judging from the store and its merchandise, there was no occasion. I understand Big Doin's took place at Walt Disney World in Florida, but if so, they haven't much impinged upon the rest of the nation. In the distance-next summer or sooner-we'll have a new Mickey Mouse film (only on DVD and video, alas), "The Three Musketeers," which I am looking forward to; but until then, if the immediate past is any indication, nothing for Mickey. I'm not going to make up for the oversight here, either, but I am seizing the opportunity that Mickey's 75th affords to reflect upon what Walt Disney did and what he represents in the history of cartooning-not to mention in the history of American culture.
For the next dozen years or so after Mickey's debut, Disney was the darling of the intellectual community, whose denizens raved, in particular, about his first few feature-length cartoons ("Snow White," "Fantasia," "Pinocchio,""Dumbo," "Bambi"). But after Disney's death in 1966, a chorus of criticism grew, condemning the "Disney version" of life as portrayed on the screen. The Disney version is phoney and therefore dishonest, this new breed of critic said: it is inevitably set in "an imagined past" or in the fairy tale world of childhood. The real small town of rural America (setting for all of Mickey's films of the 1930s and many of the later live-action films) with its pervasive sense of community no longer existed, they carped, and it was deceptive to suggest to young audiences that they might live out their lives in such ideal environs. And the fairy tales Disney adapted to the screen were purged of whatever unsavory elements lingered from more primitive times and then sweetened to confection. The process robbed the ageless stories of their mysterious appeal to the human subconscious.
A generation ago, when the underground press gave Mickey and Minnie genitals and sex lives, it was merely a sort of desperate, last-ditch effort to stop the Disneyfication of everything by recalling to mind by means of a jolting shock those aspects of life that Disney was brushing out with his magic brush. It was effective satirical comment-and wholly justified. The Disney version is indeed sanitized to the point of cloying sweetness. About that there is little disagreement. But there is some danger that we'll relax in the self-satisfied comfort of our unanimity of opinion on Disneyfication and let that opinion stand alone-unjustly-as a complete assessment of the man and his works. While such criticism contains modicum of accuracy, Disney never aspired to produce Truth or Art; he wanted only to entertain. And to make money. He did both, and in the course of doing both, he virtually created the modern animated cartoon business.
It's entirely fitting that Mickey's official birthday is November 18-the date of the first public showing of a sound animated cartoon but not the date of Mickey's first appearance in public. Mickey first starred in the silent "Plane Crazy," which had a trial showing in Los Angeles on May 15, 1928, in a Hollywood theater. The November anniversary date thus commemorates not so much Mickey's birthday as the technological advance that "Steamboat Willie" represented. That advance revolutionized the animated cartoon.
It's appropriate that we celebrate a technological advance and not the creation of a cartoon character because Disney's singular gift was not as a creative artist: it was a genius for developing and exploiting technological innovation. (Disney actually drew nothing after about 1926. He was known to apply to his animators for hints on how to draw Mickey for autograph hunters; and he even had difficulty reproducing his well-known signature.) After the first "talking movie" in October 1927, most Hollywood producers hesitated about the advent of sound-if they were not downright fearful of its consequences. Not Disney. He saw the coming of sound not as a threat but as an opportunity. He seized it and took the country by storm.
Never content simply to make money, Disney poured his profits into improving the quality of his films. He insisted on the expensive practice of filming preliminary drawings in order to preview the animation-and thereby to improve it or eliminate flaws. And he and his animators developed the storyboard as a device for plotting whole movies.
Until the introduction of the storyboard, the story content of an animated film tended to be a concoction by animators of a series of gags, funny bits either visual or verbal or both, strung together without much regard for anything but inciting laughter. At the Charles Mintz/Screen Gems shop in the early years, for instance, the three principal animators customarily divided a picture into thirds, each working on his segment with hardly any mutual discussion. This method was not much advanced from the earliest days of animation as described by pioneer Walter Lantz: "We might start with the idea of having to go to the North Pole, but that was as far as we would go in working out the story. . . . [Another animator] would say, 'Walter, I'll pick up the scene with Happy Hooligan coming in from the left. When you finish your scene, be sure he goes out to the right.' That's all I had to remember."
Mintz's laissez-faire attitude had an unintended benefit: creative animators were permitted to do almost anything they wanted to as long as it didn't increase the cost of the production. And at this stage in the evolution of the animated film, the freedom to experiment was highly prized. Still, the supervising animators would occasionally remind their teams of their chief obligation: "We want footage," they might say, "we don't want Rembrandts." Shamus Culhane, who started at Mintz as an inker, remembered that "if you had a gag where somebody was hit by something, you automatically had it happen three times because you used the drawings over again."
Some animation studios devoted more attention to storylines: they knew their films would have greater impact on audiences if the pell-mell comic action had a point. Animators would meet at the beginning of a project to cobble up some sort of plot and to lay out possible gags and humorous sequences, all related to the narrative thread. Disney employed this method until about 1932, when he subdivided his production staff, creating a "story department" with the animators who showed a gift for inventing plots. The storyboard took shape in the story department. Because so much of the humor of a cartoon is visual, animators tended to sketch their ideas, and plots were outlined with pictures rather than words. At Disney, this practice was formalized into the storyboard, which is simply a series of drawings indicating the key moments of an action sequence, pinned up on the wall in the order of their occurrence. It was simple but revolutionary in its effect: by visualizing the action, storyboards permitted all the creative people involved in the project to critique and improve upon the storyline or individual sequences before starting the time-consuming (and therefore expensive) animation. Soon after Disney began storyboarding his films, word about the effectiveness of the device spread throughout the animation community, and soon, every studio was using storyboards. And many studios also established separate story departments in imitation of the Disney process.
Disney also developed better animation. He instituted classes at the studio to train his animators. Don Graham, an instructor at the Chouinard Art School in Los Angeles, developed the courses and, most importantly, a technique for teaching realistic animation. Called "action analysis," it involved a model executing a complete motion that animators then tried to sketch from memory-"giving an impression of the movement rather than an overly detailed rendering of it." The technique suited perfectly Disney's own feeling for what animation should be. Exaggeration was important in animation, he believed; and in capturing the impression of movement, animators were dealing in a species of exaggeration.
Innovation continued when Disney produced "Snow White," the first feature-length animated film. He knew that audience attention would flag in a long film if it were done in the style of the Mickey films. One thing he did was to have the movie's backgrounds painted in muted tones, browns and greens dominant-with the expectation that audiences could better tolerate the softer coloring. "Snow White" was an enormous success, a marvel. If Disney's career had stopped after this film in 1937, his place in the pantheon of cartooning greats would still be secure. But Disney didn't stop. He made a commercial success out of nature films. And he made more feature-length cartoons-21 of them by the time of his death (not to mention 493 shorts, 47 live-action features, 7 nature films, 330 hours of Mickey Mouse Club shows, 78 half-hour Zorro adventures, and 280 film tv shows).
Although Disney very early ceased to be a cartoonist in the common sense of the term, he is remembered by most who worked closely with him as a masterful story editor. As one of Disney's severest critics, Richard Schickel, says in The Disney Version: "It was as editor and critic of stories that he had his finest creative hours. He had a fine sense of pacing, a gift for stretching and embroidering a basic gag or situation that some have compared to that of the great silent comedians, and, above all, an infectious enthusiasm for ideas, even bad ones, [and he could keep] the ideas bouncing until, somehow, the plot or situation or character was sharpened to a satisfactory but not necessarily preordained point."
If Disney did not create Truth or Art, as some of his most vocal critics would have had him do, he created modern animation. And even if "Disneyfication" sucked the life out of most of Disney's characters, it also produced many moments of high art in animation-among them, the sustained choreography of the house-cleaning sequence in "Snow White"; Pinocchio's dance with the puppets; the Mad Hatter's tea party in "Alice"; the fight with the weasels in Toad Hall; Ichabod Crane's frantic flight from the headless horseman; and the "Dance of the Hours" with hippos, ostriches, elephants, and alligators in "Fantasia" (the first edition) to cite a few memorable passages that flash quickly across memory's screen.
And if the sweetening of characters throughout the Disney canon resulted in many of them being incapable of wildly inventive comic action, Disney's drive for technical perfection somewhat offset his failure to create films that are consistently funny throughout: if "in the late films complexity of draftsmanship was used to demonstrate virtuosity and often became an end in itself," as Schickel's indictment reads, the demonstration still set a pace for the art.
FOOTNIT: The Disney/Pixar film "Finding Nemo" has sold 15 million DVDs, making it the champion DVD of all time, further confirmation that computer animation is The Future. Disney has shut down production on "A Few Good Ghosts," which mixed computer and traditional animation. This decision, reflecting creative differences (some felt the flick about ghosts inhabiting folk-art dolls was not "universally appealing"), will probably lead to more layoffs at the beleaguered Florida animation studio. Under animation chief David Stainton, Disney has already laid off 50 animators in Orlando and has closed its Paris and Tokyo animation operations. The forthcoming "Three Musketeers" is traditional animation, I understand; and it may be the last of a vanishing breed.
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