Thursday, January 31, 2008

Belated X-MAS

Shane Glines was kind enough to send me this wonderful Henry Syverson Christmas gag in full color. Shane's CARTOON RETRO site offers the widest variety of inspirational images under one banner on the web. Click on the image to view a larger version.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Hans Bacher

Hans Bacher's book DREAM WORLDS, about animated film design recently came out and I am enjoying it immensely. His thoughts and personal observations about design are well worth studying and the artwork is outstanding.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

On a happier note...

Maybe Lucrezia the poisoner might clear the pallette a bit, as drawn here by Campbell Grant. I've been working on more about Grant and his influences, but there are a lot of scans to do; the full post isn't ready yet.

Saturday, January 26, 2008


I know I said I'd lay off the topic for a while, but Pete alerted me that Michael Barrier co-opted my words yesterday and though I hated to do it, I visited "the Barrier zone" to examine how he was spinning me. Not surprisingly he piggybacked onto the post mainly to shift focus to himself and pimp his dreadful 'history' book; perhaps he needs the money and attention. And ultimately he was only interested in further discussing (and disparaging) Chuck Jone's gallery artwork which misses the main point.

I've considered Mike Barrier's writing beneath comment for decades, but if he's going to spin me personally, then let the nerd-fight begin!!! Don't stifle any yawns on my account.

Once again, my main subject was to ponder, as a working artist, what can engage or disengage various artists (particularly great ones) over time? I offered art of Chuck Jones' to illustrate not a sheer decline, but some wild ups and downs in the later years. As one of the "downs" I used an image I felt appropriate and I still basically feel it so:

But I also used a caption that was rude and beneath the topic:

"I mean, who the crap are these guys?"

Right image, wrong caption. Words like "stodgy" "creakier and stiffer" I still stand by, despite the fact others have disputed them as choices. But the language of the caption is simply too glib and familiar coming from me in a public forum, regarding the subject of an outstanding talent. Yes, I think it would be okay with Chuck Jones if he found us critical on this point and he'd probably be amused to know we were all publicly discussing it, as long as we weren't being unduly wise-assed about it. But the language of that caption isn't critique, it's off-handed ridicule. It's prominent position and tone-setting effect is what distracted. I have no doubt it is precisely what offended many, sent some over the edge, and worst of all, encouraged others to bash. I not only regret it, but quickly apologized. I am sure most people who saw the apology can understand this as sincere.

Not Michael Barrier. He has to re-frame things to remind everybody that once, long long ago, in a time when he could fob himself off as an "authority," he had the inside track on Chuck Jones and all things animated. (Thank God those days are long over.) He goes on to say that in my follow up apology I "all but flay" myself and takes care to surgically lift quotes that show me in a supplicant, backsliding light so that he can claim superiority. Please note that as he lifts my quotes, he edits them--specifically deleting the point about the rudeness in the caption.

A conspicuously subtle edit, but not an innocent one to my guess. It seems he needs to divert attention away from the damaging comment because it was a cheap shot, and damaging comments and cheap shots are his common currency. He no doubt likes to secure plenty of space for cheap shots since he only has them and his armchair opinions to offer anyone. And he is master of the cheap shot, the judiciously damaging edit and shows this by using my own words to frame me as someone unwilling to defend opinions of my own. Trust me friends, not the case. And he has been skillfully crafting such commentary for four decades. No wonder people are afraid to take him on.

I believe Mike Barrier doesn't want me or anyone else to recant cheap shots even at major figures, because as a trend it could all but silence people like him. Recently I read that he called an indie short film "11 minutes of sheer torture", which anyone can see isn't an intelligent critique, just a spitefully catty remark. I'm sure the filmmaker would welcome even harsh critisicim if it were useful or insightful, or at least more original. His remarks in total offered nothing on those counts. Okay then, if a short film can be called "torture" I could just as easily describe the time I wasted reading Barriers "History" book "assault with a deadly dull weapon." And I scrupulously read every vacuous, navel-gazing page, to be sure of the content. Or in this case the utter lack of it. "Sheer torture" indeed.

To me it's bad enough that non-professionals might stumble on his words and mistake them as gospel, but I always wonder why seasoned artists do? God only knows. Yet I recently saw Steve Busustow's son scrambling to curry his favor over some dispute Barrier raised regarding UPA minutiae. Why should he scramble? Shouldn't the scribe be trying to earn credibility from Mr. Busustow and not the other way around? Does anyone still really think that conducting interviews with legendary artists forty years ago makes him an historian? If so, I guess we can equate British royalty gossips with Arnold J. Toynbee. I've known and worked with some of the legends he interviewed and I can tell you at least one prominent one felt ill-used and betrayed by him. For that matter I have the impression many old pros generally felt the same. Some of his portrayals of their careers reads like trashy office dish. As far as I'm concerned Barrier is the Kitty Kelly of animation historians, not the Will Durant.

Historians? Many better IMO: Maltin, Canemaker, Solomon, Beck, Amid, Kausler etc. Critics? Lots of useful ones in this age when "everyone's a critic" has never been more obvious. And entertaining and insightful ones who have ripped on films I've had a hand in--I can take it. Insults? Well Don Rickles and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog shouldn't lose any sleep over Mike Barrier. Neither should anyone else. Let him use his own words to flog his weary, useless pulps, not mine.

Friday, January 25, 2008

And now for something completely different...

Here is a moose. Hey it's a change of topic at least.

The Joey Bishop factor

A minor skit from a lesser season of Saturday Night Live (circa early '80's) stands out in my memory for being a very astute observation of a situation I don't think I've seen explored in comedy much before or since:

(Bear with me if I get any of this wrong, including casting. I only saw it once and that was nearly thirty years ago.)

Young married couple A (Bill Murray and Gilda Radner) have enjoyed a dull but pleasant evening on the town with young married couple B, (Harry Shearer and Larraine Newman) who are their new neighbors. They're back in couple A's apartment making awkward small talk over coffee but it is clear the two couples don't have much in common and they are winding down an evening they are not likely to repeat. Casually, couple B notice a souvenir ashtray with a Vegas hotel logo: they've stayed there too. Couple A mention they saw comedian Joey Bishop perform there recently. Couple B brighten noticeably: they're big fans of Joey Bishop. Couple A warm up in kind; they're big Joey Bishop fans too. They confess they don't just like Joey Bishop, they love him! Same with couple B--they worship him! Within a few exchanges it turns out they are clearly the four most Joey Bishop-obsessed human beings on earth. They are trading movie quotes, stand-up routines, even singing the theme tune from Bishop's short-lived sitcom. One of the husbands does a verbatim impression of Guy Marks, Bishop's erstwhile sidekick. No detail of Joey Bishop's career is too obscure or trivial for these four not to cherish. The two couples are now deeply bonding and the atmosphere has gone from tepid to frenzied mutual joy. They pledge to see his next live tour together and appear to be starting a long, beautiful friendship.

Catching their breath for a beat, couple B ask if couple A saw Bishop's most recent appearance and Couple A confirm they were there the same night. Did they see the late show or the early show? Both shows, say couple A, of course! Couple B admit they saw both shows too, they only asked because they thought Bishop gave a better performance in the late show. The mood suddenly chills: what do they mean, couple A wonder? Couple B reiterate that they thought the late show was superior and they felt Joey Bishop was generally sharper and more warmed up during the late shows. Frosty now: couple A go on the defensive: Joey Bishop is a professional, the consummate entertainer, he never goes on without being warmed up; he's always sharp! Couple B won't relent: for technical reasons that are no fault of his own, Joey Bishop is at his best in his late shows, period. Not so, couple A insist; he's never ever not at his best! Now there's a chasm of difference between them and the evening dissolves very quickly: excuses are made, coats are grabbed and couple B hurry home, permanently alienated from couple A. Couple A are non-plussed and shake off the bad mood by deciding to watch an old videotape of one of Joey Bishop's shows.

I bring this up because some of the comments regarding this flap involving my observations about Chuck Jones remind me of this skit: how details in the devotion to a particular figure (even someone as low-key as Joey Bishop) can become a source of contention that creates a schism between groups who fundamentally feel the same way, but not fundamentally enough to suit all parties. It somehow never ceases to amaze me.

I welcome all the comments and dissent but it appears that some have felt it near blasphemy to make critical comments about an such an icon and a few can't brook a sensible discussion of relative merit without hammering back with an unrelenting defense of every single pencil stroke the man ever made. That would be understandable to me if the point of my post was merely to state a provocatively critical opinion of mine strictly for it's own sake. For the most part, I think it's clear enough that wasn't my object, but just in case: 

The idea of an artist improving is still a cherished one to me, and there are many of examples which have been cited in the comments. In the cases where a decline (or even a shift) occurs in an artist's signature process, I am curious about that. One individual on CARTOON BREW scoffs that this whole question is a waste of time. They're entitled to that opinion but I see they took at least 3 times the length of Amid's post to say so, which I find ironic. That aside, I do enjoy entertaining philosophical questions about drawing and art and I can't help it. If there's something we can learn from this and apply to our own art, then that's no small value, in my opinion. I chose Chuck Jones as an example not to single him out, but because unlike other cases I could site, he was still around and active when I began my career and I even had some minor first-hand experience of him.  Since he inspired me a great deal, I remain curious about his artistic process and because I believe in being self-critical, I also can't help but want to understand merits and flaws in the works of even my heroes, in my own quest to improve. I think I am not alone in this.

I've been told, (among other things), that I need to understand the difference between a rough sketch and a finished drawing but with all due respect, I think I can actually grasp that, having done a few myself, even though I am well aware I am no Chuck Jones.  Even the later artwork I don't like by Jones still displays a sense of his impeccable rhythm and spontaneity, which I can plainly see and appreciate. The mystery remains however: why an artist with an almost unrivaled arsenal of varied and ever-expanding character design and posing abilities would settle into a pattern of routine (and frankly bland) formulas, based on a single and repetitive armature of fairly even and uninteresting (to me anyway) proportions? Especially when he was not only not prone to do that before, but was capable of otherwise even in contemporary situations? I offer that the circumstances of production affected the output and I remain convinced of it, which doesn't seem that objectionable a view to hold. Rather, it suggests to me that an artist who remains in love with his process, (and I suspect Chuck  Jones was still passionately more in love with animation than any other process) can remain vital as long as time and physical health permit. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Chuck in Flux redux

Larry Levine suggests in the comments of the previous post that I jot down some recollections of my personal experiences with the great Chuck Jones, something I have been meaning to do for some time. To be clear, although I was lucky enough to meet and speak and work with him on something like a dozen occasions, each occasion was usually brief and I cannot pretend to have known him well, which some of my other friends actually did.

In the meantime though, I guess I should add to my previous a few other comments about the issues I have raised here:

First of all, I never intended to slight or disrespect Chuck Jones and I regret giving that impression. I think the caption I posted for the B & W sketch was ill-advised and I apologize for it, although I feel that deleting it this late would be cheesey. I am sorry for it though. I think the sketch speaks for itself well enough about the point I was trying to make. Ironically, the longer I look at it the more it seems like a perfectly acceptable drawing. It is, however not nearly as good a drawing as any from one of the vintage shorts it references.

I am beginning to wonder if it is best not to offer critical comments at all in such a public forum and there is plenty of room to be misunderstood. I don't mean to set myself up as the standard bearer for the industry and would be on pretty thin ice if I did. Chuck Jones, on the other hand, was a master of this medium and I hope it's obvious that I admire and relish his work (including some of his most obscure films) as much as anybody.

Second, despite my dislike for much of the later gallery art, I do not mean to suggest that Mr. Jones was "hacking" when he did this stuff. I think rather he did these to what he believed was the best of his ability and it should go without saying it was in his discretion to do them in any style he chose. He was a classy guy and I don't think "hacking" was in his nature. The baseball cards and later shorts suggest to me however that these pieces engaged a different part of his creative brain than the gallery art and the psychology behind that is interesting to me. It is in fact the general point of the post, and not specific to Chuck Jones either. The large paintings are particularly poor in my opinion, but the fact that Chuck Jones did them makes them valuable and well worth whatever the galleries charge to purchase them. And if people enjoy them, that is their right. I myself can't paint in any medium worth a damn and wouldn't pretend that I could produce anything better; to the contrary in fact.

Third, I was in fact trying to point out that the production process of making the later big-budget shorts, as well as the pseudo-production process of making the baseball cards brought out what I and I think many other fans and artists feel is the best in Chuck Jones' later work and proved he was capable of firing up the old spark of his great heyday.

Finally, I go back to the remark about Floyd Gottfredson, which I made below: the fact that he was vocal about his preference for his late work has haunted and chilled me for decades, because although I can't site a case offhand, I do think it was something many older artists of his generation felt in the twilight years. Chuck Jones was proud of his work in general but he never got specific about the late vs early issue and no one to my knowledge ever asked him, so in this case the mystery of his genuine personal appraisal is what nags me enough to raise the issue. That Gottfredson, on the other hand, could call his pedestrian later strips better than his outstanding work over the decades of the 1930's, 40's & 50's is depressing. I seem to recall that the interviewer even balked at this and the artist brushed him off as too young to understand. Does this mean that taste and criteria and even visual perception change over time, or is this just the sound of an ego protecting it's host? Given that I myself am well into (ahem) mid-life, it's a question I have to ask myself. I try to stay as critical of my own work, both personal and professional, as possible as anyone who knows me well can tell. I'd certainly like to think there is better work ahead for me yet and that age and experience will make me better fit to rise to the occasion... I guess only time will tell.

BTW - If anyone knows where this late interview with Gottfredson is, let me know, it would set my mind at ease if I am remembering the whole thing wrong...

Post Script: Thad K has posted some fine examples of Gottfredson in both his heyday and his decline, here on his own blog. He also echos hearing the artist make the claim that he was better later, confirming that at least I am not the only person who got this impression.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

"Whoa...I've been sick!"

Came down with a walking case of cruddy throat and violent coughing right after my last post. Not the worst thing I ever caught but annoying and lingering nonetheless. I am slowly getting back into the swing of things and should be posting stuff again soon.

Thanks for being patient.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Prince of Scales

Michael Sporn reminds us today to visit THE THIEF, a recently begun blog chronicling the making of Richard Williams' magnum opus THE THIEF AND THE COBBLER. The blog is edited and created by artists who worked on the film.

I'd love to know if they have any information about this 'scaly-skinned' Prince character that appears in a film still from the 1975 book CREATORS OF LIFE. I have seen various versions of the film (bootlegs, YouTubes, and the "official" studio releases) but this character doesn't appear in any of them. The design is intriguing though and the use of fish scales to represent his skin is to me typical of Williams' wonderful sense of visual invention.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Happy 2008

cartoon by Henry Syverson

I don't go in much for New Year's resolutions but if I could will one into being it would be to get out of the drawing slump I have been in lately. I know all too well that the only thing to do with a slump though is to ride it out. John Sanford and I used to talk about how strange it is that the more you learn about drawing, the harder it gets for some reason. It seems to get truer every year.

2007 will always be fondly remembered here as the year I started blogging. It has turned out to be one of the most creatively satisfying things I have done in a long, long time and I am only sorry I hemmed and hawed for so long (at least 2 years) before finally jumping in. A lot of inspiration came from CARTOON BREW, the first site I click to every day and Amid and Jerry continue to do a fantastic job there. Adding comments this year found me wanting to chime in so often that a blog of my own seemed to be the only alternative to over-staying my welcome there. CARTOON BREW remains as valuable as ever and I am always amazed at how on top of things they stay, given their various commitments elsewhere, including ancillary sites they each run separately. The fact that they do it all for free is even more amazing. Thanks guys!

Shane Glines' CARTOON RETRO has been another inspiration for me to get blogging. For a mere 50 bucks a year Shane has been sharing a vast library of eye-popping cartoon joy from all over the world and throughout cartoon history. Where else can you see Reamer Keller, Ronald Searle, George Petty, "Lichty" and a host of international favorites at the click of a mouse. On top of that Shane throws in a few masterpieces of his own now and then that will blow your mind. I decided that I could return the favor here by publishing scans of some of my lesser-known favorites like Henry Syverson and Sheilah Beckett.

ASIFA Hollywood Animation Acrhive is a treasure trove as well and I have tried this year to make a point of coughing up a paypal contribution on a regular basis. Steve Worth and his volunteers are stocking the archive shelves and files with goodness and the site updates about once a week. The Milt Gross pages we got this year alone were a good enough reason to support the cause.

A number of personal sites have inspired me and the list only keeps growing, (although my LINKS list itself is incomplete and a mite out-dated). John K, Thad K, Jenny Lerew, Mark Kennedy, Michael Sporn, Ward Jenkins and Mike Mayerson are some of the indespensibles and their commitment to keeping various and diverse aspects of the artform alive and lively is something that we should all be grateful for. The web has also kept me in touch with many current friends and colleagues (like Bill Riling, Patrick Mate, Clio Chiang, Uncle Phil, Scott Santoro and Claudio Acciari) and brought me back in touch with some folks I have lost track of over the years: including Dave Nethery Mike Gillett, Pete Emslie, and Mike Wykcoff.

BTW, since I mentioned above my erratic linking policy I should add here that I know that I don't always link to everyone who stops by or even to everyone who is kind enough to link to me. I don't know if that's bad blogging etiquette, but if so, I apologize. I am certainly appreciative when someone links to the small room, but nobody is required to, even if I visit often. I do update the list from time to time, but I admit I am not very diligent about it. Also my comments policy is driven by gut-instinct to a large degree: I try to keep negative comments out because I don't as a rule like to be put on the defensive about matters of taste, and I don't like to subject others to that either (though there were a few exceptions). I also try to keep the number of back-and-forth comments limited to avoid a "chat room" effect (I hate chat rooms and don't join them). Lastly, Ward Jenkins recommended that "staying on topic" is a fine general rule of thumb, though of course it doesn't have to be rigidly adhered to. When I find things continually getting "off topic" though, I do edit the comments more heavily.

The internet also likely had something to do with the plethora of good books and DVD's this past year: THE DON MARTIN COLLECTION, THE HANNA BARBERA TREASURY are two of my favorites, as well as the ongoing PEANUTS and KRAZY KAT series from Fantagraphics. The POPEYE VOL. 1 dvd was a welcome and well-produced set, though I think I got even more joy out of the WOODY WOODPECKER selection, mainly because since they are so rarely shown anymore I forgot how good some of them were. VENTURE BROS. VOL 2 and even the Joe Orilio FELIX were worth getting for me (Jim Tyer did some FELIX stuff that rocks even though it is limited). The upcoming Ralph Bakshi book looks like a must-have and hopefully it will lead to a complete set of his DVD's as a retrospective. Maybe there will even be some exciting new stuff--here's hoping anyway!