Author: John Tebbel

Reviewing Kyle Baker

Reviewing Kyle Baker

I was taking stock recently, reviewing the silver past and anticipating a golden future when I was struck by the fact that for the past six months I’ve given books by Kyle Baker to friends and relatives on every possible gift giving occasion and then some.  This speaks well of Mr. Baker, whose line of books now covers every possible demographic.
For the very young or people who just don’t like to think about a nemesis more personal than hunger or gravity, there is his autobiographical work of family theft known as The Bakers.  As a comic or a collection these gag panels, comical strips and full-length comic novellas start small and suck you in to a quite often very complicated gag, a combination of motives and subplots only a very accomplished technician such as Mr. Baker can execute.  They are wonders of timing and staging that show how valuable he must have been during his sojourn in the Hollywood cartoon business, and how his talent for real-life details would have driven the kidvid fantasists to make his work there living heck.  Everything in The Bakers universe can be imitated by a real family and has probably bedeviled your real family in its time.
In the book-shaped The Bakers: Babies and Kittens (Image Comics), the second book of it’s kind (after The Bakers: Do These Toys Belong Somewhere) Mr. Baker confounds the people who have spent their lives in a futile flight from cute.  Like R. Crumb, his command of the medium and knowledge of what the eye likes (before the consciousness can muck things up) seduces his audience into taking a ride it thinks it has been on before, and a kiddy ride at that.  But the plastic elephant takes a wrong turn and you’re soon in a fix that Ricky Ricardo and Harold Lloyd would shudder to consider.  He then spares us the usual sitcom sermon and leaves the world of The Bakers as delightfully unbalanced and full of comic inevitability as it was in the beginning.
Comics is a near perfect medium today, unencumbered by commercials, your neighbor’s cell phone, the sponsor’s amoral code of standards, the way the electronic media is really after your time.  No, you’re in the driver’s seat, Mr. Comic Reader (or should I say “Mrs.”?).  It’s your choice:  Read it one panel at a time, sit down and read the whole thing at once.  Laugh.  Read that panel over again (you don’t have to wait till summer or even to download it).  Put it down on the coffee table and read it again later, or recommend it to your roommate.


Foto News

Foto News

Who got special treatment at the San Diego?

These reserved seats went unused at an otherwise packed panel where last arrivals uncomplainingly sat on the floor. (Photographed after the panel broke up.)






Spike and Mike, Sick and Twisted

Spike and Mike, Sick and Twisted

Warning: Not necessarily office-friendly words abound.

Unless you go to an animation festival, and you should go to an animation festival, the only way to see independent animation is to look out for the traveling cartoon programs.  For a while it was Fans Only.  We clustered in this or that museum auditorium for the International Tournee of Animation, now defunct.


This was the traveling hothouse for the short cartoon, where animation lived on as an art form, not a commercial proposition.  The films came mainly from studios run by a government or a college mixed in with a few made by individuals.  And the individuals almost always had a grant.  Civilians in the audience were always surprised that at least half of these pictures are serious, not made to make you laugh; quite often a meditation on unpleasant things or a non-linear succession of disturbing images.


That’s show biz.


Then came Spike and Mike.  They were into animation, going to a festival or a traveling program now and again.  As showmen, they were dismayed that only, say, 20 percent of these films, on a bad day, would be what you would call entertainment.  They were all worthy of contemplation by the prepared, patient mind, but keep ‘em in their seats, keep ‘em hollering for more?  No.


Spike and Mike made change.  Their Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation began with a core of cartoons from the museum shows that were fast, stupid jokes or slightly slower jokes that were quite filthy.  They packed the rest of the program with other funny or gross films too low for the museum crowd.  They marketed it to regular theaters, to be shown as a regular attraction, not the weekend midnight slot.


They’ve been at it so long they have created their own sub-genre (and I certainly don’t mean than in a derogatory way, unless that would make you more likely to attend, then yes, I mean “sub” in the most demeaning, degrading sense possible).  Spike and Mike is now a learning tool, like a video game, that teaches you how to do something very specific, in this case to make a cartoon that can get past the gauntlet.


Consider if you will an audience.  An audience of mostly men, like what you used to see at the San Diego Comic-Con.  If the center wasn’t dry, a lot more of these people would be working on a cheap high, a perfect attitude for the gauntlet.  They’ve been whipped up by having free t-shirts thrown at the crowd.  They say, “Fuck Stoners,” or “I Fucked a Backstreet Boy;” a few are kind of rude.  Then they’re ready for the gauntlet.


UPA: Inventing the Future

UPA: Inventing the Future

“…To anyone dismayed by the artlessness of television’s ‘limited animation,’ it is difficult to realize that the trend began on the highest note of artistic endeavor.”

Leonard Maltin, in Of Mice and Magic


Nothing pleases writers and readers trying to understand the arts like a clean break.  Styles and periods have a messy way of melting into each other at each end as artists and audiences push and pull, sometimes for decades, before the old is no longer visible, and the new is just what is.  Animation readers and writers are glad they have UPA.  While Disney’s “trusted” artists were away trying to draw every leaf in the Amazon, the radicals back home were working up a way to suggest that jungle with a line and two areas of different color, maybe not even green.  “Illusion of Life” was a great style for a walk through a landscape. To race to the moon a method as different from walking as rocket science was needed.


As impressionism came along when the machine age was changing the rules.  The vision we now call UPA in honor of the studio most identified with its art and politics came along, conveniently, and inevitably as the Second World War.  Walt may have thought it was the Army contracts or the tentacles of the Comintern that were the main changes he was witnessing in his line of business.  If you look at what ended up on the screen, the big change was in the way people began to draw.  Gone was the realism left over from the nineteenth century.  Finally the air of the modernists was let in.


Walt loved the older styles and pursued them as far as possible.  Producers who tried to compete head to head in Illusion of Life all went bankrupt.  His visual statement was so coherent and powerful that his is the only name of the movie pioneers still in common usage, and standing for both a style and a personality.  Illusion of Life and Walt’s dedication to it can’t be denied or explained away.


When people talk about UPA today, as they did at a San Diego Comic-Con panel last week, it is impossible not to mention Walt Disney early and often.  You can’t talk about up without down.  Walt Disney, more than he ever imagined or intended, stands today for the visual establishment, going back to the French Academy and their yearly, binary selection for the salon.  Those chosen had it made, those excluded might as well go back to painting signs.  For some time in animation it was: do it Disney’s way, fail, watch your business dwindle away to nothing.


At the core of UPA were artists who had made the cut at Disney but would push the envelope artistically and politically in ways that ended with their exile from his studio.  For some there was a disconnect between the glorious product and the rigid production protocols, which fit Disney’s personality perfectly but ran counter to many other people’s ideas of logic or fairness.  Some people had more to say than could be said in a studio with someone else’s name on it.  Some people were just ready to move on.


Leonard Maltin nails it:  “If there hadn’t been a UPA, someone would have had to invent it.”


The Two Rays

The Two Rays

Sometimes you write the article, sometimes the article writes you.


You’ve seen it a million times.  The head table, on a dais, faces the audience.  The honored guests take the stage to applause.  The microphones are adjusted, name cards arranged, the host begins the program.


But when the greatest living science fiction writer is the guest, the gods are aware and send us a message, lest we begin to imagine that we are in charge of the agenda.


Ray Bradbury is in a wheelchair these days.  The Comic-Con arranged for a nifty, new-looking wheelchair elevator to be at the end of the stage.  Ray’s people wheeled him across the front of the stage to a round of applause.  They wheeled him into the elevator, a glass box (waist high, if you’re standing, if you’re sitting, it’s up to your neck) on a lifting platform, glittering, unmarked by fingerprint or key scratch or any marks of human inhabitation.  It was also innocent of any rehearsal, the hallmark of every smooth use of any stagecraft more complicated than a hat.


If it was President Roosevelt, two guys would’ve lifted him and his chair the two or three feet from floor to the stage.  It might have taken an extra guy, Comic-Con folks not usually bringing Secret Service beef to the table.  But we have modern technology—no sweat, no strain.


In 2007, still without our silver jumpsuits, faced with an untried, miniature elevator, Ray sat there a prisoner, his unfailing good nature in no danger from this silly snag, for ten minutes.  They fiddled with the lock, they looked concerned, they did their impression of Wile E. Coyote in the moments between realizing the scheme has misfired and feeling the faint breeze that announces the arriving boulder.  They moved the platform up an inch, they moved it down three inches.  They did these things for ten minutes with no help sought or offered from any authority.  Finally, they blundered upon the right sequence of actions and the gleaming glass and steel doorway opened and Ray Bradbury was freed from The Crystal Prison of the Festival of Fans.


Scott Shaw!  Did you hear me?  I said, “Scott Shaw!”

Scott Shaw! Did you hear me? I said, “Scott Shaw!”

Now, more than ever, do we need Scott Shaw!’s Oddball Comics.


He has followed his bliss and ours to the last swap meet, the dustiest quarter box of mixed comics to save the comics that no one else would save.  We all know about the great comics that everyone’s mom threw out.  These are the comics that every self-respecting kid threw out.  The ones even our kid siblings wouldn’t save from the trash.


These are the comics that put the funny in funny book, both “ha-ha” and “peculiar.”  And fewer are the howlers put out as advertising tools than you’d think.  Most of the show are comics put out by entertainment professionals.  They’re just wrong.  For every genuinely, intentionally funny comic book cover over the years there must be a hundred that are so stupid, so venal, so slapdash as to be the dictionary illustration for “laughingstock.”


Being in the hands of a seasoned performer like Shaw! is a relaxing pleasure.  You pick up the rhythm and laugh along as long as the schedule will allow.  He is the king of the slideshow side shows, a wonderful reminder of the great heights we attempt and the depths to which we can fall.  Here are freaks for geeks.


This is the first, maybe decisive verdict of history on these comics.  One look and the specialists in the field, that is, the entire audience, can’t help but laugh out loud.  There are fewer professionals in attendance these days, but that’s because they’ve all seen it, some since they’ve been in middle school.


When androids dream, Syd Mead gets paid

When androids dream, Syd Mead gets paid

Syd Mead (Tron, Alien, Blade Runner) is a professional artist.   This explains why he doesn’t work more in the movies.


That’s professional artist.  He does a lot of work for major corporations who are happy to meet his fee for his services without any phony penny pinching.  When it’s the movies calling, he says, the price “starts at zero” and the artist has to “work his way up.”


There are many needy artists. Producers always can find someone to work on spec.


But they won’t get Syd Mead.


He also insists on a “one to one relationship with the director,” which means no intermediaries or departments of intermediation. And if they do agree to his fee, and his working conditions, he then makes sure that the exact amount of work is specified and the fees due for anything more.  That means anything.


The last picture he worked on was Mission Impossible III, on the Mask Maker sequence.


I’m one of Syd Mead’s newest fans.  Before I signed up to cover his panel at Comic-Con I didn’t know his name, though I’d enjoyed his work.

Though “artist” is a big enough term to hold him, he is sometimes called a “visual futurist.”  But that’s a little silly.  No one can predict the future.  But an artist who is good enough can make images that speak to our sense of how we would like to improve the way things look and our need to make things that are better and more useful than the things that went before.  Henry Ford wasn’t being a futurist when he made a Model A to replace his Model T automobile, but today we would call him one.


Most designers are making good livings doing renderings that gently recycle the images of the past, the better to please the client.  This is why there are several hundred fake Tudor houses on Shady Bend for every saucer shape clinging to a hillside.


He is best known for his work on Blade Runner, though his career began in industrial design.  Like many successful designers, his career has made many twists and turns.  Designers work alone when they’re putting pencil marks and paint on illustration board, but they turn their work over to dozens, even hundreds of people who will then make a car or a building or a movie along the lines the designer suggests.  Good designers like this process.  They like working with directors and architects and other confident, creative people.  People who are in charge of insane amounts of money, risked by other people to create things people will buy and take to their hearts.


DVD Review: Fleisher’s Popeye

DVD Review: Fleisher’s Popeye


Note:  All you need to know is that Popeye is back, on DVD, this Tuesday, July 31.  If you’re not getting up to go place your order I guess you can continue reading if you want, but that’s all you really need to know.  Otherwise, know that —

The modest and self-effacing Jerry Beck has once again returned from animation’s mountaintop with the real deal in the form of [[[Popeye The Sailor, 1933-1938]]]. Sixty cartoons on four discs, plus plenty bonus features, commentary, the works.  To the purist, and why be in pop culture if not to root out the impure, these are the only Popeye cartoons worth the name.

Not since their theatrical release, all those decades ago, have people been able to see these works as they were intended to be seen.  This of course assumes you are going to show them in a jammed movie palace on Saturday night filled with everyone in your town from eight to eighty who’ve just seen a newsreel starring Mussolini.

I don’t have to tell you that every studio but Disney thought their cartoons were an embarrassing necessity of the business, like Port-o-Sans at Woodstock. Once the studios didn’t need to program short subjects along with their features they dropped them thisquick.

They lived on in fragile prints, before the age of videotape, picking up scratches and noise each time they were put through your local television station’s film chain.  When Hanna-Barbera’s half hour shows became widely available in their second run the broadcasters decided to save themselves a few minutes trouble and ditch the short cartoons for the new, half-hour, self contained shows.

It is some testimony to their naïve sense of duty to their customers that most TV stations had one of their employees put on a yachting hat or an engineer’s cap and pretend to be Sailor Sam or Casey Jones for an hour or so to keep the cartoons from bumping into the commercials.  The half hour TV era cartoon shows let the stations save the money on the host segments (the host was the least of it; they had to light a set and staff the studio: a couple of cameramen, a floor director, a director and an engineer).

But what we tuned in for were the cartoons.  And we could tell the old Hollywood cartoons were the gold standard.  First of all, they were obscure.  We didn’t get all the jokes, didn’t understand all the references, just like when we observed the grown-ups.  There were jokes we got the first time, and we came back because we could instinctively tell from the timing that there were more laughs to be had, and even more precious, insights into the adult world not to be had in any other way.

Olive, for example, at one point sang that she would only consider a “clean shaven man,” a new idea to second grade boys.  Bluto’s beard and Popeye’s stubble were random phenomena to us, like rabbits having long ears.  We weren’t aware of the idle pleasures of beard husbandry or the agony of a daily shave.  But the knowledge of Olive’s preference (and the goddam song) stay with you a lifetime.

Warners and Columbia were glad to get a few bucks for the rights to their now useless films from television distributors in the late 1940s.  The ubiquitous a.a.p. company marketed hundreds of cartoons to greedy television stations.  These cartoons, made by adults for a general audience, were now thought to be perfect children’s programming.  Of course they weren’t.  Children loved them, but so did everyone else.  Adults didn’t watch them because they were working or grabbing breakfast when the cartoons were on.  And the children of the ‘50s dined on a rich diet of adult cartoons, adult comedy shorts and re-runs of even earlier television programs, such as the history of vaudeville and burlesque sketch comedy contained in the Abbot and Costello.

The SDCC panel on the subject featured a couple of guys in the Popeye business today, a darling young couple, in the animation biz, who were, in a stretch of the term, brought together by the one-eyed sailor.  There was Jerry Beck to assure us the restoration was every bit as surreal and scarily sharp as the job done on the Looney Tunes sets.  And there was Tom Hatten.

If you haven’t gotten the idea yet, I love the now almost entirely gone, once ubiquitous children’s television hosts.  Sometimes incredibly gifted, gravitating to the major markets, sometimes Krusty on a Krutch, stuck inside of Springfield.

Tom Hatten was Popeye’s man in Los Angeles and so, even though I’d never before laid eyes on the man, I can vouch for his talent and love for his craft.  Part of the job was doing personal appearances around town.  If it was anything like the one’s I went to in Cleveland, Ohio (Jungle Larry) and on Long Island (Soupy Sales) they were probably mob scenes.  Though not an animator, he had to draw sketches of the Popeye characters by the countless dozens.

I had to ask Hatten if he was aware of [[[The Simpson’s]]] Krusty the Clown, and whether he found him funny.  To my surprise, and sort of admiration, he said he found the limited, stylized animation so off-putting he can’t watch it.  He also singled out [[[Bullwinkle]]] for inclusion in that category.  So he didn’t know or wouldn’t say if he found insight or insult in their rendering of his professional fellows.

They played one of the documentary features, on the several people who’ve been the voice of Popeye, including, what I would call a surprise, even for San Diego, that Mae Questel, the voice of Olive Oyl, did a stint as Popeye, too, and was maybe second to the great Jack Mercer.  Mercer brought the character to life with his inspired ad lib comments, rising to brilliance when he would contribute scat fills between the phrases when Popeye would sing a song.

The set is peerless entertainment, higher education and made by my good friend Jerry Beck, whose web site, is a must visit for all cartoon freaks everywhere.  But don’t worry about some buddy-buddy thing going on here.  If you like Popeye, if you miss those great black and white cartoons (and the couple of color shorts they did) this is for you.  I’ll be the guy ahead of you in line Tuesday morning.  Just don’t blow me down.

Popeye the Sailor: 1933-1938, Vol. 1; Warner Home Video.

SDCC: Just Be Cos

SDCC: Just Be Cos

I’ve seen the Spirit of San Diego, and it’s wearing a costume.


Saturday sold out first at the San Diego Comic-Con and many dealers were wondering why the floor was more crowded on Friday.  Well, that’s because Saturday night is the Masquerade.  And if you’re wearing a nice costume you don’t want to, and quite often physically can’t, maneuver on a convention floor that’s even mildly crowded.  So you wander the many acres of convention center space between the rooms.


And you pose for pictures.


Want to bring happiness to millions (or at least hundreds) in one day?  Come to San Diego on Saturday and ask people in costumes to pose for a picture.  They live for it, and I’m glad they do.  They are brilliant posers, having worn out the mirrors in their houses.


You don’t have to buy a ticket, you can do it on the sidewalk.  You don’t even have to have batteries in your camera, it’s the moment that counts, not the immortality.


Some of them are in this world; a sharp looking black haired guy in decent shape in a spot on Superman outfit.  He was standing in the back of the room during the DC Panel.


Some are in their own world, in a costume that barely suits (or fits) them.  And I wouldn’t be cruel enough to post their picture near this paragraph.


After a while you realize that no one human can know all these characters.  After a longer while you start seeing costumes when all the person is is extremely stylish.  I saw a guy in backwoods hippie gear and was thinking maybe Hillbilly Bears when I realized this is just how he walks the streets everyday.  I asked a woman to pose, thinking her outfit was something from Sandman but she was just a very happening goth chick.  And, like a true Shipoopi, she doesn’t get sore if you beg her pardon.


My favorite was the gathering of eight Doctors Who.  They’re not only well into their costume and character, they’re clearly having the time of their lives.  And when you take a picture or stop to smile back at them, you get a piece of it for free.