Author Archives: Thad

Pecking Holes in Poles

woody posterThe oddest feature on the DVD of Woody Woodpecker, the newest live-action/CGI animation hybrid based on a classic cartoon character, is a hidden bonus feature: Niagara Fools, one of the better ’50s Woody Woodpecker cartoons, looking nicer here than it did on the 2008 Woody Woodpecker & Friends Classic Cartoon Collection Vol. 2. And it’s hidden well—no mention of it anywhere and no chapter stop—so I’m at a loss for its inexplicable inclusion. I say “better” because as most cartoon fans know, cartoons in the theatrical era didn’t get much worse than when the credits read “Directed by Paul J. Smith.” He presided over the last two decades of the Walter Lantz studio’s output and while there were occasional bright spots in the first few years, like Niagara Fools, Smith was an auteur of inept cartoon comedy and crude drawing and animation.

In that respect, Woody Woodpecker lives up to its source material very well. It’s no better or worse than what you’d expect by now in a world that’s birthed Looney Tunes: Back in ActionYogi BearAlvin and the Chipmunks, and whatever other “reprisals” I’m forgetting. You have the paint-by-numbers plot (Woody’s forest faces demolition; the new kid is having trouble with his dad; villains kidnap Woody and his new friends); the bland human leads (although one of the film’s villains, a poacher, is a dead-ringer for Dapper Denver Dooley); and the smattering of fart and shit gags. (As the Chipmunks movie established, coprophagia is now an accepted staple of children’s entertainment. In one scene, Woody defecates on a villain’s ice cream cone, which apparently makes it tastier. It’s the second time Woody shits in the movie.)

The CG animation, done by Cinemotion in Bulgaria, is serviceable even if it’s inappropriate for as manic and elastic a character as the woodpecker to be anything but hand-drawn animated. Woody does at least maintain his anarchic/amoral personality for most of the picture, causing everything from construction site mishaps to gas explosions, which does wear thin over some 80 minutes. If there’s anything redeemable about the movie, it’s that voice actor Eric Bauza did an excellent job recreating the circa ’40s Woody. Pity he wasn’t in every minute of it.

The choice of director Alex Zamm (Inspector Gadget 2Beverly Hills Chihuahua 2) is proof enough that Universal execs had no intention of this being anything more than forgettable cookie-cutter filler for the Wal-Mart and Netflix family sections after it was released in the film’s intended market of Brazil. There, Woody (as “Pica-Pau”) has remained incredibly popular with all ages, and still broadcasts daily, something that obviously can’t be said for the character’s home country. Why intentionally craft a formulaic babysitter movie for a market where the original Woody cartoons are still popular with teens and adults? It’s a missed opportunity, and film reviewers in Brazil have noticed, as exhibited here and here.

Paul Smith fortunately wasn’t the only guy to handle the character. Many fine Woody cartoons came from Shamus Culhane, Dick Lundy, and Don Patterson, as did some great comics from John Stanley, Dan Gormley, and Freddy Milton. Unlike Mighty Mouse or Casper the Friendly Ghost (characters nobody honestly likes but have still been around and known forever), there are real gems to be found in the Woody series and the Lantz cartunes in general (I should know, I co-ran a website devoted to them for many years) and that has inevitably helped the cartoons’ longevity in Brazil. Ergo, a new movie with Woody should celebrate and pay homage to what people liked about the old cartoons—right? Apparently not.

It’s not as though the people that could do the job are hard to reach. Woody Woodpecker gives a “special thanks” credit to David Feiss (Ren & StimpyCow & ChickenI Am Weasel), whose highly recognizable frenetic style would’ve been a perfect match for the character, but there’s no sign of his influence here. Not that the right people being there would’ve probably made a difference. The last reprisal of the Lantz characters in 1998, The New Woody Woodpecker Show, was headed by Ren & Stimpy‘s Bob Jaques in its first season and staffed with many of the talented and distinctive artists from the Nickelodeon series. Yet it was still as unwatchable as anything else on TV (getting progressively worse in the former R&S artists’ absence, of course). It’s obvious the badness of these reprisals all comes down to control from the top, regardless of who’s making the product. It doesn’t matter who does Woody any more than it matters who does Bugs (see Joe Dante’s interviews regarding Looney Tunes: Back in Action), unless these guys are allowed to do what they do best.

After decades of this behavior, and with our culture immersed in reboots of all shapes and sizes, the time is ripe for improvement—let talented people rebirth these things the way fans want to see them; chances are, they’re fans too, so they’ll know. Disney seems to have struck a chord with its DuckTales revival; Tom and Jerry are reused by Warners so many times a year they’re bound to hit a target occasionally. But that’s about it. With the news that Animaniacs! is being revived with an ex-Seth MacFarlane producer as the showrunner and without a single writer from the original show, it seems most of Hollywood is determined to remain set in its alienating ways. It’s a shame even from a financial perspective; even $21 a day once a month is better than a billion dollar boner.

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The Underrated Art of Simplicity

Nancy Aug 1 1941

Top: the Aug. 1, 1941 strip of Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy. Bottom: the Terrytoon School Daze, one of two failed animated shorts with Bushmiller’s Nancy and Sluggo. The adaptation of that ’41 strip starts at around 1:25. Note that the strip (which is even legible at thumbnail size) is readable in some six seconds, whereas the Terry guys ballooned the joke to some 90 seconds. The new Fantagraphics book How to Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels doesn’t discuss why things went so wrong with the animated cartoon, unfortunately, but once you finish the book you can probably figure out why.

Full-disclosure: this review is by someone who has chided Mark Newgarden over the years for even doing his long-gestating How to Read Nancy project with Paul Karasik. Along the lines of, “How to Read Nancy? With your Eyes Wide Shut.” But I always knew if someone like Mark respects Ernie Bushmiller enough to do a 44-chapter-and-then-some intense study of him, there has to be something special at work there.

How-to-Read-Nancy-COVERHow to Read Nancy will inevitably be an important college text: its writing is engaging but never fannish, and breaks down the concepts of visual storytelling in a manner that will not turn off the average reader or student. I can easily see this becoming an alternative to Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics in many curriculums. That book has its virtues and will always be valuable, but I always thought it an awful idea for McCloud to do it as an actual comic book. Newgarden and Karasik lavishly illustrate the history and their thesis, and also understand that concepts need to be explained in words without distracting the reader with the authors’ own creative concept.

Which is the point of the book and its subject: simplicity is important, underrated, and misunderstood. Newgarden and Karasik don’t try to hide that the prevailing opinion in the comic critics world is that Bushmiller was a hack. As they said in a Comics Journal interview: “Krazy Kat and Little Nemo resemble “Art.” Peanuts resembles “Philosophy.” Nancy resembles nothing more and nothing less than a comic strip (and a gag-driven, self-proclaimed “dumb” one at that), hence: easily dismissed from the canon.”

I certainly sympathize with battling critical prejudice. Friz Freleng gets the same flak from animation fans and historians for not being as flamboyant as the other Hollywood cartoon directors, despite the simple poses and animation in his cartoons generating as many (and arguably more) laughs as anyone else’s pictures. While I didn’t leave the book thinking Nancy is some misunderstood classic that deserves the sort of attention as Herriman, Schulz, or Milt Gross’ work, the authors have certainly made their case that Bushmiller implemented intelligent design on a daily basis. And not just because of his intense gag-writing process that’s covered well here.

The fact is, a lot of comic strips were and are junk. Newgarden and Karasik are able to take a single innocuous Nancy cartoon and analyze some forty-four elements within the following categories: the strip, the script, the cast, props and special effects, costumes, production design, staging, performance, the cartoonist’s eye and hand, details, and the reader. In not one single instance does it feel like they’re reaching—the elements are all there and done well enough that they can be highlighted individually. I’m hard pressed to think of another strip simple enough to analyze cartooning principles in this depth, even my absolute favorites. Maybe a Peanuts strip, but then again, that “philosophy” would overshadow the non-philosophical lesson intended. There’s no “philosophy” at work in Nancy—just craftsmanship that delivers the goods in seconds. That certainly cannot be said for all the long-standing dinosaurs that are part of the King Features family. And that’s why the book is proving so interesting and popular: that you can mine all of this education out of a dismissible Nancy strip.

One other element of the book I particularly admired, as a fellow cartoon archaeologist, and fear will be ignored in other reviews was the historian aspect of Newgarden and Karasik’s scholarship. The story of Bushmiller—his work, his influences, and what made him tick—is covered more thoroughly here than it will be ever again. Most illuminating was the reveal that there is no complete run of the Nancy comic strip available anywhere. In fact, they didn’t even have an original copy of the 1959 strip when they started the book—nor did they know the actual date it appeared! (For the original essay, the strip was taken from a Nancy collection where it appeared undated and without the syndicate/copyright information.) Thankfully that little dilemma was solved, but the larger one remains.

Theoretically there could be a Nancy run assembled by some enterprising historian willing to go through hundreds of thousands of microfilm, but to this date that hasn’t happened. In an age where just about everything is getting reprinted, often material that doesn’t warrant it (I’m thinking of the fussy Al Taliaferro Donald Duck strip that’s getting the red carpet treatment from IDW), perhaps this tome will lead to Bushmiller getting his due. I mean, why not?

Perhaps the most profound thing reprinted in the book that makes the authors’ case is a 1959 newspaper comics page where the strip originally appeared. Even without knowing what I was looking at, my eye was drawn to Bushmiller before anything else, including the more respectable cartoons like Li’l Abner. Even if you stubbornly cling to the idea that Nancy is junk, the book is still worth reading because everything Newgarden and Karasik say can be applied to cartooning and comedy in general. The book is also important for the influence it will hopefully have on the cartoonists who read it. The medium is crowded with clutter and it remains difficult to discern those who deserve attention, whether it’s in a book or at a gallery. That doesn’t mean to draw as simplistic as Bushmiller or just go for the dumb laugh—just take a leaf out of his book so your art will stand out in the wallpaper of the cartooning world.

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“Inspiration! Imagination! Animation!”

Thanks to Jack Theakston for sending along this article on UPA from the May 1952 issue of Production Design, the magazine put out by the Society of Motion Picture Art Directors. (What other animation studio could such a magazine feature?)

Note the date, when UPA was in its darkest hour and was forced to get a “loyalty oath” from its “Communist” employees or lay them off, otherwise they would lose the Columbia Pictures contract. As we all know, that’s when the studio lost most of its creative core: John Hubley, Bill Scott, and Phil Eastman. The cartoons were never the same (or good) again.

Knowing the time-sensitive nature that’s always been part of the publishing world, I can’t help but be impressed by the prompt hackjob the magazine did with removing any mention of those artists, save of course crediting Hubley for directing Rooty Toot Toot in a caption. Still, it features some interesting photos and drawings I’d never seen before and I can’t help but appreciate the “shop talk” that goes on for paragraphs and likely went over contemporary readers’ heads.

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The Return of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Snow White FB coverNow available from Fantagraphics is The Return of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which features four of the stories Romano Scarpa drew with the movie characters for the Italian Topolino. Scarpa only wrote the latter two stories, while Guido Martina (whom I’ve dubbed the Italian John Stanley) wrote the first two.

These are strange, wild stories that deal with mortality in very grim and chilling ways, but they also have a coherence and humor that makes them genuinely entertaining, far more than any American comics with the characters. (Who else but those Italians would think to have Jiminy Cricket have the hots for the Wicked Queen?) I would place them in the same tier as other Mickey Mouse stories Scarpa and Martina made in the 1950s like “The Blot’s Double Mystery” and “The Mystery of Tapiocus VI”. Scarpa was arguably the best comic book author of the Mouse, and he did some fine Duck comics, but Scarpa working with the Dwarfs in Topolino was one of those rare combinations in Disney comics, much like Gil Turner was with the Big Bad Wolf in Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories. In those stories, the author is able to make something promising out of characters that were just about always throwaway filler.

As presented by Fantagraphics, the comics retain their original coloring and are well reproduced from decent stats. The American English translations are mostly by Jon Gray (with David Gerstein and Michael Catron), who’s been the main script-writer on the Disney books by IDW. I’ll admit, knowing Jon as I do, that I was nervous these particular stories might have been out of his wheelhouse, but that nervousness was certainly misplaced. He deftly delivers Dwarf English these thrillers deserve.

My only caveat is that there’s no accompanying article about these stories in the book, save a little uncredited blurb on the copyright page. While sometimes the stories themselves are enough, it’s still accepted that the publisher needs to justify why this unseen material is being presented in an archival collection. Hopefully a future collection will have some substantial accompanying text by David or Italian comics scholar Alberto Becattini, as there are more than enough Scarpa/Martina Snow White comics to justify a second volume. But it’s the comics that matter, and they’re served well herein.

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