Tuesday, October 14, 2008


I thought I'd muse over a question that used to bug me: the American 18th and 20th centuries were so different; what changed us? How could only a hundred years have made such a big difference? Even if you're not interested in this, I think you'll find the unusual view of American history expressed here to be fascinating. It has to do with utopianism.

As every schoolkid knows, a lot of immigrants came to America to escape religious intolerance in the old country. The unification of Germany where the Catholic South was awkwardly combined with the Protestant North; the puritans versus the Church of England: It was a mess. A lot of people who had the means bailed and came to America.

The English puritans were the original utopian immigrants. Except for their opinions about witches and sex, they were an admirable people, but I'm not sure I'd have wanted to live around them. They were a feisty lot. The English monarchy was glad to see them leave, and for good reason. Eventually they made war on the government, chopped the King's head off, and ended the monarchy. That's Cromwell, one of the puritan leaders, above; a no-nonsense kind of guy.

A lot of Christian farm socialists like the Amish came here in the 18th century. I hate to admit it but I don't know enough about European history to know what drove them to emmigrate, or why they chose to live in farm communes when they got here. The Amish were Swiss weren't they? What was going on in Switzerland that was so horrible? Why the emphasis on farm socialism? I'll make a guess that Calvin's Geneva which was a bit socialistic captured the imagination of people at the time, but I'm usually wrong when I make guesses like this.

The Amish communes in the New World prospered, maybe because the Amish were professional farmers and knew what they were doing. When urban American intellectuals like The Transcendentalists tried farm socialism (that's Brook farm above) the result was a disaster. The country is littered with small towns whose utopian origins and subsequent schisms and break-ups are reflected in their names: "Harmony," "New Harmony," "Truest Harmony."

The farm commune concept pretty much ended with the Civil War. It was on the decline anyway since so few of the farms worked, and during the war people had no attention for issues that weren't war-related.

After the war an odd thing happened. The mean-spiritness that had overtaken European utopians since 1848 now began to influence Americans. No more farms. No more lion lying down with the lamb. No more swords being beat into plowshares. No more winning converts by example. Increasingly there was a feeling that big issues were best settled by direct confrontation with one's enemies on a giant scale. The newest immigrants brought the latest utopian theories with them, including Marxism, radical unionism, and anarchism.

It's hard to imagine now but anarchists were a big intellectual force in 19th century Europe. The most drastic of them believed in killing people who worked for the government. The theory was that if every office holder felt threatened with death, then nobody would ever want to hold office, and the people could be truly free. Conrad wrote a novel about these guys. They were really creepy. A lot of people holding this belief escaped to America, one step ahead of the law.

Another European phenomenon that got shipped over was syndicalism and revolutionary unionism. By revolutionary unionism I mean unions whose true goal was to not to promote better wages and shorter hours, but rather a general strike that would topple the government.

Then there were the Marxists, but everybody knows about them already. Anyway, all these people came to America along with everyone else.

America became a kind of safety valve for Europe. We got their discontents.

Anyway, by the time Woodrow Wilson took office we were a changed country. We definitely weren't Marxist, or anarchist or syndicalist -- those guys lost, in the sense that they didn't get what they wanted -- but they were not without influence. The new Progressive Era adopted the utopian belief that small government was ineffectual.

When modern politicians call themselves progressives, people erroneously take the term to mean "those who desire progress." Actually, the meaning is more specific than that. Wilsonian progressives conceived the U.S. as a democracy more than a republic, and once elected they believed the president should have sweeping powers. The system of checks and balances was seen as somewhat outmoded. How, they reasoned, can a government solve problems if it's designed by checks and balances to be constantly at war with itself? Isn't it the job of government to identify problems and solve them? How can it do that if it doesn't have lots and lots of power? Just for the record, I think this is a terrible idea.

Anyway, it's not the system that Jefferson, Madison, Franklin and Washington had in mind. It's a change brought about by 19th century utopians. Interesting, huh?

Sunday, October 12, 2008


I only had a chance to see the new Goofy short, "How to Hook up your Home Theater," once before Disney made YouTube take it down, so here's a review based on a first impression. The review: "It's great! Go see it! It's a credit to everybody who worked on it!" And that really is my opinion. This is a big, big event for Disney. I was deliriously happy to see that they still have the muscle to do funny, full animation shorts in the Jack Kinney style. Let's hope the studio treats these animators real nice, and continues to put them on challenging, funny projects.

My longer review, intended only for other artists who are sympathetic with the film, is a little more critical. Take what I say here with a big grain of salt. I'm comparing this film to an imaginary version made with unlimited time and money, in a dream studio surrounded by fields of unicorns and griffins.

OK then, a couple of technical things to start: The character outlines might have been thicker, maybe imitating the thick and thin you get from ink lines. Also, the pacing was too fast. The gags were all great so maybe the crew couldn't bring themselves to cut any of them, but it would have been nice to linger over some of the terrific animation.

Still nitpicking, I'll mention that the cartooning in the new film might have been stronger. Here's (above) a detail by John Sibley from an one of the old, vintage Goofies (Goofys?). Wow! The drawing has so much life and energy! I miss that in the new film. To be fair I'll add that Sibley was a cartoonist of rare ability, even compared to his buddies in the forties.

In most ways the new cartoon is solidly Jack Kinney, but there's an occasional Reitherman influence. Reitherman was a good animator but a poor director and he didn't understand Goofy. Kinney's Goofy is not, and never was, a lanky, good-natured, enthusiastic bungler, as Reitherman believed. No character worth his salt reduces down to something as simple as that.

Kinney's Goofy was first and foremost a vehicle for creative, imaginative, full animation. He was conceived to make us aware of how funny a walk can be, or how funny it is that we have hands that can pick things up, and faces that can make expressions. In some respects the character was a blank slate made to absorb the personalities of the funniest people who worked on him. He was a vehicle through which the audience could appreciate their own good natures, their own bodies, and the weirdness of world around them. He was all that first...then, and only then, was he Reitherman's lanky bungler.

The colors in the interior of the house might have been a little darker and more contrasty. Compare the background in the new cartoon where Goofy sits in his easy chair (way up above, second from the top), to this vintage background (above). The old BG immediately above is darker. Even the 40s Goofies (Goofys?) used light colors sometimes, but my favorite Goofy backgrounds were slightly ominous, as if he was living in Hell.

When you think about it, that's exactly where the Kinney character was living. His was a stylized world where everybody mysteriously looked like him, neighbors hated each other, and nothing ever worked. We admired his heroism, because Goofy somehow managed to be happy in this bizarre world. I loved the new cartoon but I'd have loved it even more if it had a greater awareness of...this thing.

Here's (above) a well-done scene...

...well-done, but maybe it still needs something.You can't fault the staging. This (the four drawings above) is a really nice reveal. The problem is that it needs a topper.

I wish I could see the film again. I can't remember what Goofy did with the remotes. The thing I want to gripe about here is that I should have remembered it. What Goofy did should have been so memorable that I couldn't have forgotten it even if I'd tried. Goofy is a star and stars require star scenes. That sounds like a lot to ask for, but the best moments in the best films manage to pull it off. What we do in Hollywood isn't supposed to be easy.

So, to sum up, my criticism of the film is that it was paced too fast and didn't play sufficiently to subtext. It straightforwardly set out to what the title promised, which in my opinion is always a mistake. Films that do that risk being too predictable.

Does any of this matter? Not really. The film was still great, and definitely fun to watch. It was packed with the kind of gags that look good in animation. There were so many possible pitfalls and the film managed to avoid 99% of them, which is amazing for a crew that's not accustomed to working with the character. Disney should make more Goofies with this crew and consult them about the other projects in the studio, which would benefit from the input of these people.

Thursday, October 09, 2008


The backbone of any decent Halloween store is its collection of rubber masks, and the backbone of any rubber mask collection is the premium, top-of-the-line masks. Most people can't afford them, but they're great for getting people into the store.

This year is understandably light on pricey masks. People are worried about the economy.

That's not a bad thing if it nudges people into making their own masks. Home-made masks are always better than what you can buy. Of course it doesn't hurt to reference ethnic masks for inspiration.

There's no limit to what you can make yourself.

Here's a home-made skull pumpkin.

Graphic designers haven't disappointed this year.

I'm always curious to see what the Panamanians come up with...

...and it's hard to beat the Africans.

Picasso meets the Incas!

We need a good Ub Iwerks mask!

The people who made these (above) call themselves Commanches, but I see Aztec and carnival instead. Good costumes, though!

An oceanic mask (above). How do they manage to make these things so spooky?

Upward-tilted masks always look great!

More oceanic (above), but it's only one step removed from African. Once the Oceanic and African people found out about each other, the two styles were bound to blend. That's my hunch, anyway.

Uh oh! The Africans got hold of Jack Kirby and Picasso! Sigh! It was bound to happen sooner or later!

In case you were wondering what I'll be wearing on Halloween, here it is...sort of. John gave me some lederhosen a while back, which should go perfectly with this.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008


Just some more random thoughts about back shots.

How do you like this drawing by George McManus for the Maggie and Jiggs newspaper strip? Mc Manus no doubt liked back shots because he had a strong graphic sensibility and back shots were a chance to use value to unite lots of people into a single shape. There really is such a thing as a group mind so the technique re-inforces the way the group actually behaves in the story.

Check out the shoes and spats that feel like wooden clogs , the mysterious eye-like back buttons, and the heads that fit into the collars like ice cream cones.

Sorry about the bad cropping and the blur (above). I'm working with an unfamiliar scanner.

Anyway, how do you like the way Davis and Kurtzman arranged the rhythm of the panels on this "Lone Stranger" page? Front shot, back shot, front shot, back shot...then three similar panels that gently morph from a back shot into a profile. Veeery nice!

But that's not my favorite thing. My favorite thing is the way back shots are given almost as much attention as front shots. That's unusual. Artists usually emphasize the front because that's the way people like to be seen and photographed in real life.  Take that away from a character and there's a feeling that the character's not in control of his own story, that a director's hand is evident.  The character's denied the right to conceal his most vulnerable side. He has no privacy, and something about that is funny.

Let us digress to ask, "What is a back?" Let's face it, for a guy it's a ball of hair on a spinal chord leading to a dirty old butt. The good side of everything faces forward; that's the side you want the world to see. The back side is...well, what's left over. If your shirt is going to ride out, or your pants sag, it's probably going to show up first in the back. The flab you conceal in the front is only concealed because you pushed it to the back. Dandruff collects there, as do "kick me" signs. Lay on the grass and your back is full of dirt and spiders. The gloves that look so heroic and manly from the front, just look like plain old workman gloves from the back. Dramatic actors are allowed to hide all this, and aim their best assets at the audience. Comedic characters are expected to bare all for the good of the show.

So that's what I like about the Lone Stranger. He's funny because he's a helpless pawn, made to be humiliated by an artist, yet he's full of self-confidence and a spirit of independence. Back shots help to convey that.

I often dread looking at the back shot character models generated by normal studios (the profile above is from Spumco, definitely not a normal studio). For them the back shot is a mathematical extrapolation of the information in the front. It's pretty obvious that they think the front is where the action is and the back is just information.

Thank God for John K! When John draws a back he always adds something of interest. The back should always contain new information, not visible from the front. It should always give us a new insight into the character.

Milt Gross (above) loved backs. He didn't worry about the details of technical draftsmanship, he just dove in and had a good time. Notice that his 3/4 back shots of the heads are really profile poses. Lots of cartoonists drew backs of the heads that way, sometimes even in animation. Nobody ever notices.

Me, I like to draw the back of the head dimensionally, even in print cartoons. There's something funny about it. T. S. Sullivant (above) was a master of that kind of humor.

Chester Gould might disagree. He hardly ever used back shots in Dick Tracy, in fact he'd go to ridiculous lengths to avoid them. How do you like the delicious awkwardness of the drawing above? I guess Gould couldn't draw backs, but who cares?

Al Capp picked up on Gould's back shot avoidance when he parodied Tracy in "Fearless Fosdick." Fosdick never gave us a look at the back of his head, even when the shot cried out for it, as it does above. Of course, Capp made the right decision, and so did Gould. It's funnier this way.

Monday, October 06, 2008


I'm too sleepy to put up a proper post, so I'll just relate an incident that happened 15 minutes ago, just before I sat down to the computer.

I'd just watched a TV movie with my wife and daughter called "Five Little Pigs," an adoption of the Agatha Christie book of the same name. In the film ace detective Hercule Poirot is hired to find the truth about the fatal poisoning of a famous painter which resulted in the conviction and hanging of his wife. The whole thing happened years before but the daughter feels her mother was innocent and wants the real killer brought to justice.


The damning evidence against the mother is that immediately after her husband's death she was seen wiping fingerprints off the poisoned beer bottle, and frantically throwing things into the lake. It looked like she poisoned her husband and was getting rid of evidence.


Well, it turns out that the mother really was innocent. When she realized a murder had been committed she assumed her 15 year-old daughter had done it, and changed the evidence to make it appear that she, the mother, had done it. She knew the daughter was a good person and would regret what she'd done, so the mother decided to bring the blame on herself. She even allowed herself to be hanged for it! I...er...changed the details a little to simplify it, but that's the gist of it. It was a good story!

Anyway, after the film I said to my wife: "Wow! I understand that reasoning completely! If our kid shot us impulsively, I'd do the same thing. In the moments before death I'd try to bugger up the evidence to deflect attention away from the kid. She's a good egg and would surely regret the crime later. If we're going to die anyway, we might as well set it up so our kid has some kind of life after we're gone."

My wife said, "That's ridiculous. Our kid is an adult now. If she kills somebody she should take responsibility for it."

"No," I said, "that's too severe! With my last ounce of energy I'd dip my finger in my blood and write on the floor: 'the killer was a pickle-nosed guy with a gold tooth who shot us through the window.' "

My wife said, "Well then I'd write with my blood: 'Nope, our daughter did it!' "

I replied that with a miraculous final burst of energy I'd write, "Don't listen to my wife, She's addled from the pain. Seek the guy with the nose."

My wife replied that she'd write: "I am NOT addled! Our daughter did it!"

Needless to say, it was frustrating to have my final testament contradicted this way. Our daughter was silent up til now, listening to us argue. I wondered whose side she would take. Finally she said, "Mom's right! If I was mean enough to shoot you, I'd deserve to take the fall!"

Not the answer I was looking for, but I somehow got a good feeling from it, as if maybe we'd raised our daughter better than I'd realized.

OK, I'm going to bed!