Izzy Klein on Coonskin


The cartoon that Robert Crumb did in response to the barbaric attack on Charlie Hebdo was a not-so-gentle reminder that not everyone views Ralph Bakshi as a deity. Recently, Bakshi completed The Last Days of Coney Island, the film he funded on Kickstarter in 2013. Its premiere is bizarre: for $3.99, you can rent the 25-minute film for a week on Vimeo. At the present, the Kickstarter backers that made the film possible have been unable to view the film without coughing up an extra four bucks. To paraphrase one of the Kickstarter comments, a true New York hustler to the very end.

To his credit, though, Bakshi’s company has promised a free online streaming of the film for backers shortly. But, even if Coney Island isn’t much, why kill its chances of qualifying for awards by premiering it this way? It’s certainly confusing and chaotic, and that’s an apt description given the filmmaker in question.

I wrote about Bakshi at considerable length in Sick Little Monkeys, and my opinions haven’t changed. I love his first two movies, Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic, and his Mighty Mouse TV show is about as unwatchable as a historically significant work can get.

Coonskin was the beginning of the end—despite the brilliant character animation and choreography, there isn’t a single engaging character in that film—regardless of the famous controversy surrounding its release. Bakshi himself has retold the tale of its disastrous screening at the Museum of Modern Art in November 1974 innumerable times, but here’s an account from a different perspective.

Izzy Klein isn’t a figure that garners much praise, but he witnessed and participated in a lot of animation history (and created Mighty Mouse while working for Terrytoons). He was a generous fount of knowledge to historians and through his articles in Cartoonist Profiles. (Although as my friend Howard Beckerman commented, “Ever notice how the ink never spills on him?”) He also exchanged regular letters throughout the ’70s with Jim Carmichael, a former layout artist for Disney, Screen Gems and Hanna-Barbera who went on to edit Peg-Board, the union newsletter. That correspondence is now housed in Klein’s collection at Syracuse University.

A lot of it wasn’t terribly important for research on my book about New York animation in the Golden Age, but the gossip relayed is downright entertaining, with refreshingly human takes on figures immune to criticism these days. Klein and Carmichael gave each other weekly updates about the antics of “Bakflip” in New York and Hollywood during his period of relevance.

One of those updates described the infamous MOMA Coonskin screening, which Klein and his wife attended. Historian and author Jerry Beck was also there and confirmed the account’s accuracy.

(Transcribed from Klein’s typewritten original, typos and all.)

November 19, 1974

Have you heard about Bakshi and the preview screening of “COONSKIN”? at the Museum of Modern Art on November 12th? A CONFRONTATION OF BLACKS AND RALPH BAKSHI: a real thriller! It was a newsworthy happening, but not a goddaam word about it in the papers. A self censored Press or no reporters were present.

To get back to the beginning… Ann and I were informed of the screening some time in advance and we obtained tickets. The auditorium was packed right up to the rear wall. I understand that there was a large overflow that could not get in. We sat down way in front to be near where Ralph would be disbursing from the “mike” Looking over the assemblage I could not spot a single familiar face from our animation business. When Ralph Bakshi came in he sat down on an aisle seat not too far from us. We waved to each other… “Hello Ralph”..”Hello Is.”

Before the show started Bakshi was introduced to the people by a young lady from the Museum. Ralphy stood, walked to the mike and said only a few words which only amounted to greetings and happy to see you here. Then the screening started. “Coonskin” is live and animated. The animation is very well done. Most of the characters are black… or should I say folks. All humanized..though no credit to the human race. The story is based on the Uncle Remus tales.. Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear.. all blacks.. They come up from the South and invade Harlam. They take over the rackets from other blacks and from the Mafia (whites). The characters are all vile, profane, … whores, pimps, perverts criminals of the lowest order. The atmosphere is of a nightmare. The language is salted with profanities, the favorite expression is “mother-fucker”. Everyone was caricatured in the most extreme and ugly fashion.

(Of course you must allow that neither Ann nor I are admirers of the sordid views of life as dished out by Ralph Bakshi).

As the screening ended and the lights were turned up, there was some scattered hand-clapping… not much… but lots of booing. Then from the rear of the auditorium a group of blacks, young and well dressed, men and women marched down to where Ralph had placed himself at the mike. They shouted their objections to the picture as the came down the aisle. They surrounded Bakshi, took the microphone and expressed additional objections and observations….like.. “We don’t live in ghettos, we live in apartment houses.. only Jews in Russia and Poland live in ghettos” Ralph answered.. “Only about 15 percent of blacks live in nice home, the rest live in slums..” I must give Ralph credit, he stood right up to them.. He shouted: “You’ve copped out the Black revolution.” A black girl shouted back: “Who the hell picked you out to be our Messiah.”

There was lots more said.. one black man shouted as he approached Ralph: “Have you ever been in a black church and heard a preacher say ‘mother-fucker? How dare you misrepresent us. A well-groomed black, wearing a cashmere camels hair coat was the first to take over the mike, expressed himself: “If I have anything to say, Paramount will never distribute this picture.” Ralph: “This is not a Paramount release.” Ralph was also charged with making these dirty pictures to make money on. He denied that he had made money on any of his pictures.

As I said, there was much more said, but overall the blacks looked very menacing as if they were going to pounce on Bakshi any minute and stomp him down. One black man had a billy club in his fist and kept slapping it on the palm of his hand. During the uproar there were two or three white fellows with small cameras taking close shots of the black demonstrators. The black man who threatened that the picture would never be distributed hollered: “Take that goddamn camera off my face.” I don’t know if the camera fellows were only camera-buffs, or from the Museum (very likely) or from the press.

The audience was mostly white. There were no Bakshi defenders coming forward, which I think was a good thing.. it only could have developed into a messy situation. Also, judging from the lack of applause I’m inclined to think the crowd agreed with the blacks.

Finally Ralph moved away from the microphone and sat down in one of the front seats. The shouting had subsided and the audience was leaving the theatre at a very fast pace. A small crowd of people crowded around Bakshi, some were the people who had been sitting there right along during the show. I thought I should say something to Bakshi before leaving, so I elbowed through, I said “Excuse me .. this is a social visit..” Ralph looked up, his face looked strained and pale, he saw me, said, “Not now Is, I’m still shaking all over.”

As Ann and I were walking east towards our bus on Madison Avenue we became aware of some people walking behind us. One of them was saying: “The police should have come down in a flying-wedge formation and taken care of those demonstrators. And I turned to that person, said, “That’s no solution.”

Would you believe it, animated cartoons used to be a fun thing.

End of brief report.


Filed under classic animation, modern animation

IDW Chatter

US06_coverAs much as I decry nostalgia, I’ve got the bug: going to the comic shop regularly again to buy Disney comic books takes me back. But who could have foreseen that my name would actually be on the covers? Especially covers already boasting Walt Disney’s? To the left is last month’s Uncle Scrooge #410, in which I scripted the American dialogue for “The Bigger Operator,” a 1974 story written by Giorgio Pezzin and drawn by Marco Rota. The great blueprint cover was drawn by Jonathan Gray.

Archival editor David Gerstein’s staff of writers, artists, and designers is his dream A-Team (of which I’m proud to be a part of), and he’s stuffing just about every issue with prime material. It’s easily the most satisfying Disney line since the original Gladstone run of 1986-90. Most refreshing is that publisher IDW has gone back to a format that encourages impulse buys, with 40-page monthlies at $3.99 (although my mother was aghast comic books were priced as high as that). I’ve always maintained the 64-page “prestige” format that Bruce Hamilton spearheaded during the second run at Gladstone in the ‘90s, and continued at Gemstone in the ‘00s, was a mistake that cost the Disney comics their general readership here in America. It’s probable passerby would see a $3.99 monthly comic-book with Donald, Scrooge, or Mickey and say, “Hey, I love these guys! I want it!” Upwards of $8? Forget it.

That’s not to say things are perfect now, though. There’s thousands of pages of great Disney comics that have never seen publication in America, and I applaud the emphasis of printing Romano Scarpa’s unseen classics. But we’ve got some pretty talented living cartoonists and writers right here in the states who’d love to take a crack at these characters, so it’s a crying shame the budget won’t allow the production of brand-new material.

The flagship anthology Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories probably isn’t the place for the yearlong “Zodiac Stone” serial either, especially since it will take up the near entirety of every issue for twelve months (its total length is over 300 pages). And I certainly can’t get behind fulfilling reader requests for reprints of the fatally bland Mickey Mouse comics drawn by Bill Wright and Paul Murry. But, if every issue was full of “excellent” material, it’d run out fast.  (Another flaw of the 64-page format is if you need to fill that many pages every month, the well will surely dry.) If there is a loyal audience for Wright, Murry, or even (shudder) Tony Strobl, why deprive them? And there’s certainly no reason to decry “Zodiac Stone,” a fine story Jonathan Gray has wanted to bring stateside for some time, finally seeing American publication, even if the presentation isn’t ideal.

If you had to subscribe to just one title, I’d probably choose Donald Duck, for its consistent inconsistency of the main character. In one issue, he’s the quintessential Barksian career bungler working for Uncle Scrooge’s brother’s newspaper. In another, he could be paired with cousin Fethry in an odd-couple secret agent adventure. The beauty of the comic-book Donald, compared to the one-dimensional animated duck, is the casting range: regardless of setting and motivation, there remains no question he is the same character at his core.

DD05scanThe most intriguing story so far has been “The Diabolical Duck Avenger,” the 1969 origin of Donald’s caped crusader alter ego that appeared in Donald Duck #372 and #373. The utterly adolescent Donald here, obsessed with outwitting Scrooge and cousin Gladstone Gander by any unsavory means, recalls not Barks or any other Disney creator, but John Stanley and his male antiheroes, Tubby Tompkins (Little Lulu’s bosom chum) in particular. For pages, there’s strictly non-expositional and aggressive business, the most Stanley-like of which I’ve illustrated here. As in Stanley’s longer-form stories, Guido Martina (the story’s Italian writer) seems to just be filling panels and biding time until the real action starts.

It’s a gamble for sure. Stanley is nowhere near as universally loved as Barks, as he took bigger risks portraying humanity’s nasty side and eschewed the warm sincerity that pervades all but a scant few of Barks’s stories. Martina penned dozens of stories in this mold, and Gary Leach, the American translator of “The Diabolical Duck Avenger”, perfectly preserved it. For the right reader, it’s a gamble in characterization that paid off handsomely.

Whereas there’s no gamble buying any of these comics. If you haven’t caught up with them, do so, in hopes that David and his pals can keep it up.

(For the record: I speak only for myself as a comics historian, scholar, and geek, not as a representative of IDW or Disney.)


Filed under carl barks, comics

A Johnny Gent Comic

Giggle4_CoverOne of the great pleasures writing a history of the New York animation studios is finally doing some appreciative analysis of John Gentilella, or “Johnny Gent,” and his work. Admittedly, it will be brief. He was a relatively minor player—he worked at a higher skill level than any of his Famous Studios colleagues on increasingly mediocre cartoons—but he was an amazing repository of knowledge on the inner workings and personalities at Van Beuren, Terry’s, and Famous. It’ll be nice to have his memories give color to the larger story.

Bob Jaques called my attention to a story drawn by Gent for Giggle Comics #4 (January 1944). Gent said he recalled doing a few stories, and it’s easy to see why his memory was fuzzy. The art here reflects a bit of his animation’s dynamism in the posing, but largely looks like it was dashed out in a lunch hour between working on Popeye. But it’s still his, and to me (and maybe only me and Bob), anything Gent did is of interest.

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Filed under classic animation, comics

Who says print is dead?

042943What are my qualifications to never post?

Well, I’ve been busy as a freelance writer and journalist as per usual, and all of my free time for animation writing has been devoted to pitching and starting an exciting new project. I’m pleased to say that my friend and colleague Charlie Judkins and I are co-authoring a new book: a history of New York studio animation (from the teens to the ’60s) to be published by Wesleyan University Press. That’s all I can give away for now, but I assure you we aim to give these neglected films and artists the scholarly attention they’ve long deserved.

Now, on a completely unrelated note…


I’ve also been translating stories for the new line of Disney comics by IDW. The process is taking a script (generally of Dutch or Italian origin) and spicing it up in my own voice for American publication. It’s a job I’ve missed dearly. My friend, collaborator, and boss David Gerstein had me do a few for the Gemstone line nine years ago, and I’m delighted to be a regular contributor for IDW.

The translating team includes Jonathan Gray, Joe Torcivia, and Gary Leach. We’re all students of the Disney masters, so we all “get” these characters. But on our personal writing styles, I’d say Jonathan and Joe are always in a “stupidest puns” competition mixed with pop culture references reflective of their eras (Joe a child of the ’60s, and Jonathan an ’80s kid), whereas Gary is very much a classical Barks scholar proper whose excellent work goes back to the original Gladstone days. Myself: I think it was Jonathan who described my style as stewing in a seat in the corner making “really cynical, really mean-spirited” jokes. Suits me. (Joe’s enthusiastic analyses can be found over at his blog, The Issue at Hand.)

Screen Shot 2015-07-28 at 7.39.38 PMYou can judge for yourself this month: Jonathan has started a year-long serial in Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories #721, Joe has a story in Mickey Mouse #311, and Gary begins a two-parter in Uncle Scrooge #408. I had the pleasure and privilege of translating a rather convoluted but funny ten-page Donald Duck for WDC&S #721. It’s a classic 1982 story by Daan Jippes and Freddy Milton with Donald as a tortured bookie runner, once too hot for American publication. Donald Duck #370 features my spin on “The Siege of Nothing Atoll”, a spy-spoof with Donald and cousin Fethry illustrated by the great Giorgio Cavazzano.

Note that this is classic, not modern Cavazzano. His style today is good, if a little standardized. Cavazzano drew “Atoll” in 1976, still fresh from his days assisting and inking the other great Italian Disney master Romano Scarpa. In those years he managed to make every pose unique and funny, and could make something as standard as an airplane flying or explosion cloud a surreal extravaganza.

It seems the new line of Disney comics is selling rather well, particularly Mickey Mouse, whose launch issue last month was essentially a sell-out all over the New York City/New Jersey area. Some of the team has presumed the popularity of the new Toon Boom Mickey cartoons for the Disney Channel has given the character better brand recognition. (Jonathan said his brother was stymied after watching a few with his daughter: “These are funny. Mickey Mouse’s not supposed to be funny.”) My low opinion of those cartoons aside, anything that helps give these comics longer press life is fine by me.

I’d tell you to watch for an update, but, well, we know how that goes.


Filed under classic animation, comics