John Stanley’s First Lantz Comic

NF79-coverI had posted this story years ago on my now dormant site Golden Age Funnies. Like every niche website, both the proprietor and audience lost interest. My scans from at least ten years ago are long gone, and all to the good, because my skills at getting archival material online have increased tenfold.

It was a bit of a dilemma, though, scanning New Funnies No. 79 (September 1943), because my copy is in such nice shape. This copy was a bargain that I nabbed in my more volatile days. Early Dell comic books have never been plentiful at cheap prices in the last 30 years, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get Charlie Chicken’s first appearance as a baby chick. (He was a full-grown rooster in the next issue.)

I wasn’t aware that this Andy Panda story is one of the first John Stanley illustrated, period, for Dell until I read the draft for Mike Barrier’s Funnybooks last January. Some Stanley stories in Our Gang Comics precede this one. Gaylord DuBois is the writer, with embellishments by Stanley (presumably with editor Oskar Lebeck’s encouragement).

It’s certainly funnier than the vast majority of Dell Comics at the time; Charlie’s belligerent retorts are far more pointed than youngins were used to. Some of the “animation staging” that hampered Carl Barks’s first year of Donald Duck is prevalent even here, though not to that degree of detriment. The final page is sublime comedy, period.

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“A banana is a banana is a banana is a banana is a banana!”

FC14-coverSome old comics are classics. Some old comics are just old. Some old comics are just stupid.

This one is kind of all three.

Just as Jim Davis’s cozy little comic shop for criminal publisher Benjamin Sangor was shut down in the summer of 1948, Sheldon Mayer retired from editing for DC to do full-time cartooning. Under Mayer’s example, the DC “funny” titles soon adopted a bombastic personality that at times can seem forced, but ultimately shows a self-referential wit that was usually foreign to these “animated comics.” The meta-element is often in the form of Tex Avery-style fourth wall breaking where the characters are aware they’re in a comic-book story, although it sometimes runs deeper in the knowingly ludicrous plots. It’s as if they said: “We can’t be as wry or smart as Barks or Stanley, but we can be wackier!”

As the Superkatt post shows, some cartoonists were more than capable. Most of the cartoonists that worked for DC weren’t, and Mayer’s Bo Bunny, Doodles Duck and Dizzie Dog features were rarely topped. One exception was Jim Davis, who had already been producing comics with the Columbia characters for DC. He soon found a niche drawing the same comics again with writers Hubie Karp (and later Cecil Beard) and got a kind of principled brilliance out of the deceptively thin premise of Fauntleroy Fox versus Crawford Crow. Reoccurring characters never appeared beyond the titular two, yet the stories’ hilarity was certainly reoccurring from roughly 1948-54.

The Davis-drawn stories with the Columbia characters proved rather popular, and by the end of 1951 they were appearing in four titles: Real Screen Comics, Comic CavalcadeThe Fox and the Crow, and Flippity and Flop. The cat-and-canary team also had its share of funny moments, with the two (and Sam the dog) fulfilling their animal roles almost obligatorily, in a way foreshadowing the Chuck Jones/Mike Maltese sheepdog and wolf series at Warners.

Given the number of stories needed, the steam ran out rather fast. The sharper stories began appearing in The Fox and the Crow and those in Real Screen Comics lost their edge. The [alleged] tactic to give the new title a boost appears to have worked. In 1954, The Fox and the Crow switched from bi-monthly to monthly publication.

The Fox and the Crow no. 14 (Feb. 1954) was the first monthly issue, and therein is one story that has nothing to do with Crow’s standard chiseling escapades. They say there’s nothing inherently funny about slipping on a banana peel. But if you can prolong the setup of said banana peel slip to a ridiculous six pages—and shove in a direct plea to the kid readers to read something else besides this stupid comic-book—it can be very funny indeed.

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Mark Kausler on ’70s Dizknee

I don’t want to take discussion of late Disney to any insane lengths, but as a follow-up to my review of Steve Hulett’s Mouse in Transition, this highly enjoyable piece from almost 40 years ago warrants a web posting.

Mark Kausler tends to shy away from reviewing animated works, even if he’s always capable of thoughtful commentary based on his decades of industry experience and passionate knowledge of American animation history. I think everyone will agree that The Rescuers and Pete’s Dragon are not the finest examples of the Disney empire (“lame” is the word that comes immediately to mind). I also think everyone will agree that Mark’s joint review and assessment of the studio in that period for Funnyworld No. 18 (Summer 1978) is entirely mild, fair and astute.

 

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(Posted with permission from Misters Kausler and Barrier.)

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Mouse in Transition

mouseTransition-sbSteve Hulett’s Mouse in Transition: An Insider’s Look at Disney Feature Animation is easily the most important book Theme Park Press has published to date.

I say that with some trepidation, but I think it’s justified. Indie publisher Bob McLain has given a venue to important Disney historians like Didier Ghez and Jim Korkis to bring information to print that the Disney Company feels has little value (or doesn’t want you to know). All of those books are impeccably researched from documentation and eyewitness accounts. Whereas Hulett’s book, about his period of employment as a writer at Disney from 1976 to 1986, is written from his own firsthand experience.

That may sound like I’m condemning the memoir format, but I’m not—they can be of extreme value. Depending on the reliability of the writer, a memoir can be the only way certain information can be gleaned. While I do believe Shamus Culhane’s memoir, Talking Animals and Other People, has a number of apocryphal and self-serving accounts, it’s an invaluable document telling what it was like working in the Golden Age, and the pain so many people went through.

Likewise with Hulett’s. His accounting describes the last decade of Ron Miller’s reign on Walt Disney Productions as a backwater Hollywood studio undergoing prolonged decay, with old talents retiring and dying and new talents leaving or becoming the latest studio hacks. And by all accounts that’s exactly what the Miller era of Disney was. The least you can ask of a memoir is that it captures the feel of the period and environment accurately, and Hulett’s book does that amazingly well. Particularly given that he’s writing about vapid films like The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron, two of the studio’s all-time worst.

Mouse in Transition could prove problematic, and that’s only because it may remain the only serious examination of that period of Disney. I wish the book was longer (I read the whole thing on my regular commute to Newark and a side trip to Jersey City), because Hulett’s readable, breezy narrative can muddle certain points, as with his account of Don Bluth going from a politicking M.V.P. to leading a mass exodus in under two pages. It’s also common knowledge that just about everyone was glad to see animation’s equivalent of Jim Jones go—the “betrayal” was all the other young talent leaving with him. That doesn’t come through very well in Hulett’s narrative.

Hulett’s most critical passages tend to be about people no longer with us. His vivid, stinging portraits of the designer Ken Anderson and director Woolie Reitherman certainly match others’ accounts, and how Moe Gollub led a strike against runaway production that ended in a humiliating defeat for the union in 1982 is common knowledge.

When it comes to the living, Hulett’s kid gloves are on. The storytelling is more colorful when exec heavyweights like Michael Eisner and ex-Disney Feature Animation president Peter Schneider enter and get taken to task, but any negative remark about Jeffrey Katzenberg is immediately qualified with a positive. (Got to be nice, or Jeffrey might just bribe Obama a bit more to send more work overseas.) Ron Miller disappears for chapters at a time and seems immune to scrutiny. Not that the memoir should blast every person mercilessly.

This is, after all, one man’s story and opinions, not an assembly of accounts that independently corroborate. A Disney director has told me he’d love to do a book on the period along the lines of a traditional Hollywood history, and I hope there will be others, because there’s far more to the story (one eyewitness can’t know everything that was going on in a studio). But Mouse in Transition still remains an excellent account told by someone with a deep interest in studio history. As if to prove that point, Hulett’s interviews with Ken Anderson, Claude Coats, Wilfred Jackson, Ward Kimball, Eric Larson, Don Lusk and Ken O’Connor fill out the book. (The Kimball interview is by far the most entertaining.)

I have no doubt Steve Hulett will be taken to task by other eyewitnesses and writers (just wade through the archives of the TAG blog to find he’s no stranger to controversy as The Animation Guild’s business representative), but at least that will encourage more dialogue about a largely undocumented period. We’ve gotten a choice sampler of why Walt Disney’s studio went into a deep decline after his death. Now what we need is the full-course meal (of which Mouse in Transition will certainly be part of).

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