Thursday, April 07, 2005

DC Comics Hates You, Part 2

Last year, DC Comics had another "event"--increasingly a code word for "marketing oppotunity"--called Identity Crisis. Now, this was tough to swallow. It began with the murder of Sue Dibny, on her anniversary no less, and unfolded as a mystery as her killer was sought. But then we found out more things about the past. For example, the villain Dr. Light had once snuck into JLA headquarters and brutally raped Sue; when discovered, several heroes--among them Elongated Man (her husband), Hawkman, Batman, Flash, Green Lantern, and Green Arrow--decided to use Zatanna, a magician, to effectively lobotomize Dr. Light. Green Arrow went on to reveal that they had done it several times to others who found out information about secret identities.

And then, as we moved on to find the killer (there were a few more deaths), it turned out that Batman had, in fact, been against the lobotomy, so Green Arrow and Zatanna had it done to him, too. To Batman.

Now, this was all offensive enough, but could almost--ALMOST--be justified in the name of a compelling story. Once you got past the "ick" factor, there were hints of a better story to come. But the resolution was a joke. The killer turned out to be Jean Loring, the ex-wife of Ray Palmer, the second superhero to take the identity of the Atom. She wanted him back, and had begun to use his shrinking technology--she accidentally killed Sue, and then tried to cover it up.

It makes me sick to see these characters used like this. Any affection you have for Sue Dibny (and, as a Giffen-era Justice League fan, I have a bit) is used--raped, if you will--to get your money. To get you to read Identity Crisis. To take advantage of you. I can't get behind that.

But at least it's over, right? Well, DC thought that, I don't know, the continuity was getting too loose again. So much of what's been done since Crisis on Infinite Earths has undone that very series. So, it's time for another one, Infinite Crisis, which began in a stand-alone special called Countdown to Infinite Crisis. And this one was a real doozy: see, this special revolves around Blue Beetle, who always felt like a nobody in the Justice League. He's insecure, and worried that nobody takes him seriously. He spends the entire issue trying to unravel a mystery, but no one listens to him. Superman is condescending, Green Lantern is cordial but uninterested, Batman is dismissive, and Martian Manhunter doesn't listen. He goes to Maxwell Lord, the man who once ran the League, and asks for help, but gets glad-handed instead. Only his old nemesis/friend Booster Gold helps him out. And in the end, Blue Beetle finds himself alone, checking out the database of a shadowy government agency who knows everything about every superhero on the planet.

And who is behind this? Maxwell Lord himself. What? Benign, hilarious Maxwell Lord? The ineffective business man who privatized the League for all those years? It doesn't make any sense, and this is why retroactive continuity is often idiotic, especially in terms of comic books: it takes all of the Justice League stories I enjoyed, and spits on them. See, apparently, I only thought I was reading humorous, deconstructive parodies of typical superheroics. No, apparently I was reading stories about Maxwell Lord trying to keep the League ineffectual while he gathered information on every superhero for a later contigency program to destroy metahumans and make the world safe for the rest of us. Thanks for that, DC, thanks a lot. Since this is a retroactive bait-and-switch, does this mean I can get my money back for buying so many issues of Justice League?

The cherry on top is at the end, when Lord shoots Blue Beetle in the head for not joining him. That was the straw that broke the camel's back, as it were--I am utterly offended by the way this comic pisses all over the fanbase. And this isn't a typical fanboy ranting: "Oh, how dare they kill off the Blue Beetle, he was so awesome!" No, that's not it at all. What really offends me here is the way Countdown to Infinite Crisis takes the 20 years I've put in to reading DC Comics, and tells me that everything I knew is wrong, all of those stories are bullshit, and the characters need to be re-envisioned because the comics are grew up loving weren't good enough. And I'm not a continuity freak--in fact, I think the last 30 years of DC Comics are good argument AGAINST being a continuity freak. And I do allow that comic books are pretty much A to B to A writing--nothing really changes very much. How many times can Batman capture the Joker and have it mean anything unless you're building on it each time? But come on. Do you have to destroy everything in order to rebuild it? They've spent the last 19 years trying to fix everything that got screwed up because of that Crisis on Infinite Earths, and this is just more of the same.

But what really, really gets to me is the editorial page, written by Dan Didio, Executive Editor of the DC Universe (whatever that means--sounds like a grandiose version of "creative director," but whatever). Besides the fact that he assumes that the reader found the issue intense and utterly fascinating, his tone is all wrong. He talks, like the always do, about "what got us hooked on comics in the first place," and name-checks "high octane action, bigger-than-life adventure, inconcievable villains, and the greatest heroes overcoming impossible odds." What he apparently neglects to mention is overweening pretension, too. You can tell important stories in comics, of course, but he's sorely mistaken if he thinks this is one of them. He considers this very comic book as symbol, a way for DC to "renew our commitment to telling the types of stories that make comics great."

Yeah, like that classic story where Jughead revealed that he was feigning stupidity so that he could infiltrate Riverdale and form a communist cabal in middle America. Remember? And then he brutally raped Veronica and shot Moose in the head for failing to join him. Which issue of Archie was that? I believe it was from 1978...

From this point on, we're supposed to follow four different miniseries for the next six months (asking for quite a financial commitment, aren't we Danny boy?), and then Infinite Crisis begins, the sequel to Crisis on Infinite Earths, "one of the greatest comic stories ever told." He then goes on to promise that "its changes will be far-reaching and its effects everlasting."

Yeah, until some writer comes along in a few years and wants to resurrect the Blue Beetle, right? Or until some other change is undone because some other writer preferred stories set before Infinite Crisis. We're dealing with characters who, in some cases, are nearing their 70th anniversary. You can't keep reinventing them and expect that to carry any weight. Hell, Superman died and came back, so they've taken the fear of death away from these characters, anyway.

Well, I call foul on this whole thing. This is stupid bullshit, frankly, and what most gets my goat about this mess is that it's not motivated by anything other than cash. There's no story logic here, nothing that happened in the DC Universe dictated this happening. DC's sales are down a tad (probably because they can't get their shit together and Marvel Comics are putting out the successful movies now), so they need to manufacture a reason for people to buy comics. The more controversial, the better--the fanboys on the message boards bitching and moaning about how much they loved the Blue Beetle are generating so much free publicity for DC. They don't even have to advertise it, the people they've pissed off are doing it for them. This is definitive proof, as if any were needed, that DC Comics sees its readers and potential readers as walking dollar signs that they want to collect. Actually, they're really only worried about potential readers; people like me, who already read DC Comics, we're hooked. They already have our money.

Well, not anymore. I read several monthly superhero titles, but that stops now. I can live without reading Green Arrow, The Flash, Wonder Woman, and every Superman and Batman title. Because they're going to strip everything great about these comics away. Everything. I'll continue reading JSA, because I love those characters (the original Justice Society are my favorite superheroes), and I'll still read some great Vertigo stuff like Fables. But the rest of the DC Universe doesn't get my money anymore. They betrayed my trust: that they would entertain me in return for $2.25.

So thanks for giving me a reason to save my disposable income, DC. And fuck you, too.

DC Comics Hates You, Part 1

I bought it a week late, so I'm the last person to comment on the new DC Comics "event," Countdown to Infinite Crisis. But I'm frankly appaled by it. A little background first, though.

DC Comics began in the 1930s; Superman was created in 1938 (Action Comics #1), and Batman was created in 1939 (Detective Comics #27). DC also had other major heroes like Green Lantern, the Flash, Dr. Mid-Nite, Power Girl, Wonder Woman, Hourman, the Star-Spangled Kid, the Sandman, Mr. Terrific, Red Tornado, the Atom, Hawkman, Hawkgirl, and many, many others. And this all worked out fine. As time wore on, however, characters were reimagined for a new audience. So DC introduced a new version of the Flash, a new Wonder Woman, a new Green Lantern, a new Hawkman. And someone thought it might be fun if the new heroes of the Justice League of America teamed up with the Golden Age team the Justice Society of America. So, through magic, it was explained that the Golden Age heroes still lived on in another dimension: Earth-2. In Earth-2, time moved slower, and those heroes were still alive. So there were not only two Green Lanterns (Alan Scott on Earth-2, Hal Jordan on Earth-1), but also two Supermans (both Clark Kent) and two Batmans (both Bruce Wayne). And this continued just fine.

Soon, DC began buying out other companies, and rather than incorporate them in the regular DC Comics Earth-1 universe, they created other Earths removed from the main one. So when Charlton Comics was bought, the heroes--like Captain Atom and the Blue Beetle--lived on Earth-4. Captain Marvel and the other Fawcett Comics heroes lived on Earth-S. Meanwhile, the Quality Comics characters like Uncle Sam and the Ray (and the Freedom Fighters team) lived on Earth-X. And added to this were two nifty plots. Earth-3, created for Justice League of America #29, was a mirror universe where the superpowers--Ultraman, Owlman, Johnny Quick--were villains, and only one hero could stand against them: Lex Luthor. And there was also Earth-K, an alternate future world where Kamandi was the last human boy on Earth.

This was confusing to new readers, so the story goes (I've never quite believed that), and so DC decided to collapse everything into one universe and create a new timeline, a chronological continuity. So, through a lot of rigamarole and ramadoola, the Earths became one. Some were destroyed outright; many characters were wiped out of existence. And, as always happens in these stories, the memories of the whole human race were "corrected" so that the continuity became something that always existed. The Freedom Fighters became relics of the 1940s. The original Justice Society heroes were around, of course, but there was only one Superman and one Batman--they first appeared much later, when the Justice League was taking up the mantle of their predecessors. The Golden Age Wonder Woman became the mother of the modern Wonder Woman. Blue Beetle, Captain Marvel, Captain Atom, Plastic Man, and others became a part of the DC Universe. Everything, supposedly, was "fixed."

One other point to make: it was during this story that the second Flash, Barry Allen, died trying to save the Earth, and a new Flash, Wally West (formerly his sidekick Kid Flash), took up the costume. My question for many years, though, has been: If the continuity was re-set, why is Barry Allen still dead? Just asking...

This all happened in 1986, and it was called The Crisis on Infinite Earths. Now we jump ahead to 1994, just around the time of DC's idiotic Death of Superman adventure, which somehow culminated in their most iconic hero become some kind of electric-powered disco-suited thing. Apparently, the continuity is confusing people once again; turns out that all the kinks weren't worked out after all. Hal Jordan, the second Green Lantern and a beloved hero from the Silver Age, goes insane and is turned into the villain Parallax, murders a ton of people, and then tries to destroy the sun. DC Comics, in the name of editorial license and "getting comics back to what we loved about them," has pissed on the memory of a popular character who was first introduced in 1962 by turning him evil. Plus, they used the story to screw up Aquaman completely, kill the Green Arrow, and kill off the Justice Society heroes: they kept Green Lantern and the Flash, but they killed the Atom, Hawkman, Dr. Mid-Nite, Hourman, Sandman, and many others. All for no real reason, except to create an "event" and make some dollars. Same reason they killed Superman. This whole mess was called Zero Hour.

So, the comics company continues on, now with even more retroactive continuity. Many heroes are dead; Hal Jordan's death has a lasting effect. But since then, writers who loved their original heroes have been bringing them back. Kevin Smith resurrected Green Arrow. Hal Jordan was turned into a ghost, the Spectre, and then made Green Lantern again (as a human being). There are new versions of the Atom, the Star-Spangled Kid, and Starman (retired now). Wildcat has managed to come back, and the original Hourman is fighting again. I don't even want to go into any of the amazing crap they had to go through to get Hawkman back into it. Everything is pretty much the same as it was.

Time to mess it all up again.

Let's shift gears for a moment: after the Crisis on Infinite Earths, the Justice League of America reformed as a humor book. Batman and Captain Marvel were there, sure, and also Martian Manhunter, but writer Keith Giffen had brilliantly peopled the team with second-string heroes who were considered weaklings. He made the book hilarious, while at the same time deconstructing the idea of what a superhero team book could be. Blue Beetle became an insecure laughing stock, Mr. Miracle became a pompous idiot, Guy Gardner was the most crude Green Lantern ever, Captain Atom was a stolid fool, Elongated Man was a smart but silly jokester, and Booster Gold... well, let's say Captain Amazing in Mystery Men is like a less egotistical version of Booster Gold. And the book managed to be hilarious for a long, long time. Before too long, Batman was out and a new leader was in: Maxwell Lord, a former used car salesman who ran the team like a business, often clashing with Sue Dibny (wife of the Elongated Man) in the team's direction. With his robot assistant, the snarky L-Ron, Maxwell Lord became the perfect foil, a sort of parody of Professor X if he were a sleazy senator. For those of us who find comics a bit pompous sometimes, Keith Giffen's Justice League of America was an hilarious antidote to the goings-on of the DC Universe.

Keith Giffen also created Lobo, a character who really only exists to comment on the lame excesses of the DC Universe. Giff is brilliant, and defines the idea of a writer with edge: he risks offending his own audience.

The good old days. They're gone now, and DC Comics seems intent on destroying them forever.

To be continued...(probably later today).

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Masters of Animation: The Fleischer Brothers

During the 1930s, there were only two serious giants in the animation field. The first was, of course, Walt Disney Studios. But the other, an outfit that has been sadly neglected today, was Fleischer Studios, run by Max Fleischer and his talented brother Dave.

Max Fleischer was born in Vienna in 1883 to a fairly large Jewish family that would only get larger. When he was five, his parents left Austria because of anti-Semitism and came to New York, where Dave would be born in 1894. Their father William was an inventor, and his sons seemed born with an innate sense of initiative. They would be instrumental in popularizing the new medium of animation.

Max especially was fascinated with technological innovation, as well as art. He had worked in the art department of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (even introducing a short-lived comic strip, Little Elmo, in 1904), before becoming the art editor at Popular Science Monthly in 1914. In 1911, he created the rotoscope, an animation innovation that is still used today in one form or another. Rotoscoping allows an animator to film a complex movement with a live action actor, and then animate over that actor, producing (in theory) realistic movement in cartoon form: this is the grandfather of the motion capture techniques used to create Gollum in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings, and the dead-eyed soulless things in Polar Express. Fleischer was granted a patent for the rotoscope in 1917, but found out later that a similar device had already been invented (which is why he didn't sue Disney for using it in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937).

The rotoscope was tested by filming Dave (an art student) gamboling in a clown suit, and animating a full cartoon over it. The process took nearly a year; when Max tried to sell the film to Pathe in 1916, they were impressed but felt a year was laughable for cartoon production. Max came up with another idea: wrap a live action introduction and ending around the cartoon, with the animated clown capering around on a blank sheet of paper or playing with drawing supplies. By introducing a significant live action element, production time was cut down. Out of the Inkwell was born. John R. Bray saw it, loved it, and offered them a spot in his Paramount-Bray Pictograph film magazine.

Before that, however, there was a war to fight: Max made training films for Bray, while Dave worked in the US Army as a film cutter. They still managed to turn out a few films, such as the lyrical Experiment No. 1 (1918), but it wasn't until after the war that production on an Out of the Inkwell series could begin in earnest. Though the series was meant to be monthly, it could never keep that schedule. However, the series proved popular. From a technical standpoint, the rotoscoping allowed a smoother animation than anyone else's. Dave directed, did story, and acted in the clown suit as one of the earliest recurring cartoon characters, KoKo the Clown. Max, however, was quick to claim credit, and the two brothers would clash fiercely. In 1921, they formed Out of the Inkwell Films, Inc., and were able to hire animators (as well as their younger brother Joe as an electrician and camerman). They not only produced more KoKo cartoons, but worked on educational cartoons, such as The Einstein Theory of Relativity (1923, commended by Albert Einstein himself) and Darwin's Theory of Evolution (1923, which was not shown in the South).

Always attempting to innovate, Max Fleischer soon created the KoKo's Song Car-Tunes series. In this series, KoKo the Clown would step out of the inkwell, change into a conductor's suit, and the lyrics to a song would appear on screen. Then a bouncing ball would jump onto each lyric to prompt the audience to sing along while an organist played the music. It started with Oh Mabel in 1924 and became quite a crowd-pleaser, continuing on until 1927 (and was briefly revived in 1929 as the Screen Songs series). To achieve this, Max created synchronized sound for the films so that the live audience and the bouncing ball would be in synch. Unfortunately, he didn't realize that layering the sound onto the film was a simple matter (he had already figured out the timing), so Disney beat him to sound.

Max also invented an important process: the in-between animator. In animation, most animators (think of today's greats like Andreas Deja and Glen Keane) draw only key shots, while an in-betweener comes in and draws the action between the key shots. Max came up with the notion (based on Bray's assembly-line theory), along with animator (and future Disney vet) Dick Huemer. Max also attempted to move into distribution--Margaret J. Winkler had developed a state-to-state system of middle-men which saw royalties arrive too late from individual theaters--and formed Red Seal Pictures in 1924. Unfortunately, Red Seal went bankrupt within two years. Fleischer again tried to distribute his own pictures under a company called The Inkwell Imps, but the independent producer Max had allied himself with, Alfred Weiss, was a crook and went out of business. Max's dream of independence was crushed, and instead he set himself up at Paramount Pictures. Although the company was called Fleischer Studios Inc., the company was a subsidiary of Paramount, who would hold all the copyrights.

Sound devastated the animation field in 1927, and only those who could adapt quickly survived. Max took up sound and ran with it in 1929, creating the Screen Songs series (bouncing ball still firmly in place) with The Sidewalks of New York. Even though the Out of the Inkwell series was still fun--the cartoon KoKo's Earth Control (1927) in which KoKo and his dog Bimbo find a lever that accidentally destroys the planet, is a surreal masterpiece--Max saw sound coming and decided the adventures of KoKo had come to an end. Lest he become a relic like Felix the Cat was about to, Dave made KoKo Needles the Boss (1927) the last Out of the Inkwell cartoon.
Trumpeting the advent of sound, the Fleischers created a new series called Talkartoons, a series which was meant to star KoKo's dog Bimbo for a sense of continuity and audience identification. The first Talkartoon, Noah's Lark, premiered in October 1929. It featured music in much the same way Disney's Silly Symphonies, developed concurrently, did. Another Fleischer brother, Lou, was hired as musical director.

The Talkartoons series did well enough, but the Fleischers really hit something in 1930. The Bimbo adventure Dizzy Dishes introduced the character of a female dog-woman as a potential love interest for Bimbo. The character, drawn and animated by the incomparable Grim Natwick, would end up being a goldmine. Her return appearance in Silly Scandals (1931) was a sensation, again animated by Natwick. Working with Dave Fleischer, Natwick removed all of the girl's canine qualities and refined her look for Stopping the Show (1932), and Betty Boop was born. The character was a hit, and Bimbo became a supporting character in her adventures.

Enjoy Dizzy Dishes right now.

Betty Boop, though still Grim Natwick's basic design, had been made as sexy as possible by Dave. She was the first cartoon character to develop a sexuality, and even though your head knows it's a drawing, there is an undeniable sexual appeal to her. John Grant describes it perfectly in his excellent book Masters of Animation: "[Betty Boop was] a conscious mixture of child and woman, so that, however outrageous the goings-on, she preserved at the same time an aura of complete childish innocence." This is the beginning of a phenomenon that hasn't been discussed overmuch by psychologists--that the innate male attraction to young girls may be informed by cartoons. Even today, a character such as Jasmine in Aladdin is, for all intents and purposes, sexually desirable. However, in action and attitude, she is like a girl of 12, so that what Disney presents is an innocent child who nonetheless exudes sexuality. Betty Boop, however, was designed for just this purpose, and proves very popular. She even flashes a naked breast for a split-second in Betty Boop's Rise to Fame (1934) before proceeding to put on nothing more than a grass skirt and flower lei and dance on a beach in perhaps the sexiest thing cartoons would see until Jessica Rabbit.

Grim Natwick had modeled Betty on Paramount star Helen Kane (including her catchphrase, "Boop-oop-a-doop!"), but Mae Questel is the most famous voice of the character. Kane sued the Fleischers over the use of her likeness in 1934, but she didn't win the case (thanks to, it must be said, a good amount of sly lying on the part of Max Fleischer). Betty Boop was also partly responsible for Hollywood's enaction of the Hays Code, as many people protested about the smut coming out of Hollywood held Betty up as an example. In cartoons made after 1934, Betty's dress is longer and her garter is gone. Dave was certainly pushing the envelope, though--witness the phallic symbols and nude statues in Poor Cinderella (1934), Betty's first color cartoon (the herald of a new series, Color Classics). Other great Betty cartoons include Snow White (1933), the Fleischer take on the Grimm tale; Be Human (1934), in which Betty and Grampy humiliate and beat a man who is cruel to animals; Betty Boop's Crazy Inventions (1934), which features a wacky science fair; Betty Boop's Ker-Choo (1934), with Betty looking sexy in a racing jumpsuit and fun anthropomorphized cars; and No! No! A Thousand Times No! (1935). The Betty Boop cartoons are milestones of their time; Betty usually sang a song, and then some horny old man or creature would try to take her away (we can guess why), only for Betty to get out of trouble. A formula, but one that worked.
By 1933, the animation process had gotten faster, and the Fleischers were putting out an amazing number of cartoons (even more than Disney). Max--who had long ago dropped out of actual animating in order to run the business--began buying film rights to other properties. Cartoons based on comic strip characters were nothing new, but buying the rights to E.C. Segar's Thimble Theatre proved a very sound financial decision. Thimble Theater had begun in 1919, and chronicled the trials of the Oyl family and their pretty young daughter Olive and her scheming brother Castor. In 1929, Segar had introduced a new character, the rough but amiable Popeye the Sailor--he became so popular so fast, he ended up taking over the strip. Max seized on this popularity and introduced Popeye in a Betty Boop cartoon, Popeye the Sailor (1933). Dave introduced elements that were not so prominent in the comic--for example, Popeye's use of spinach as some kind of upper. The cartoon was a hit, and very soon Popeye got his own series. Though some characters--such as J. Wellington Wimpy, Olive Oyl, Lil' Swee'pea, and Eugene the Jeep--came from the strip, E.C. Segar specifically designed Bluto for the film series. The series began in 1934 with fun cartoons like The Man on the Flying Trapeze, and reached its first color entry in 1943 with Her Honor the Mare. The series continued in one form or another until 1957, proving much more durable than Betty Boop ever did.

The first appearance of Popeye is right here.

Popeye is often criticized as being one-note, and his character is admittedly more of a collection of attitudes than anything else. But the series was fun, and there ended up being hundreds of shorts. Without a doubt, the three best of the series are the two-reel cartoons, sort of featurettes that run about 20 minutes in length. Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor (1936) is the cartoon that most people think of when they remember Popeye, with Popeye landing on an island of giant monsters and, of course, rescuing Olive from Bluto (the series really only had the one plot). Following this was Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba's Forty Thieves (1937), and the hilarious Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp (1939), which actually puts Popeye in the Arab tale, genie and all. My favorite conventional-length Popeye cartoons are The Two-Alarm Fire (1934) and The Twisker Pitcher (1937).

The Color Classics series of cartoon shorts premiered in 1934 with the Betty Boop cartoon Poor Cinderella. These cartoons usually featured music, but the focus here was on how color was used to create lasting images, as in the classic short Somwhere in Dreamland (1936). This series is unjustly forgotten, featuring some real classics like The Cobweb Hotel (1936), Bunny Mooning (1937), A Car-Tune Portrait (1937), and Small Fry (1939). Unlike other series the Fleischers ended up creating, Color Classics was successful and an artistic triumph. Stone Age Cartoons, a sort of Flinstones precursor initiated in 1940 with Way Back When the Triangle Had Its Points, was decidedly less so. The Gabby cartoon series, Animated Antics--only 8 of them, beginning with King for a Day in 1940--was also an irritating mess. And the Betty Boop cartoons like Minnie the Moocher (1934) featured too much music by Cab Calloway and other black artists to play well in the South.

Minnie the Moocher

Here, too, are both parts of the two-reel cartoon Raggedy Ann and Andy from 1940.

Nearing the end of the 1930s, Max was beginning to feel more ambitious, and Dave was hoping for new challenges. Though they were the only serious rival to Walt Disney at the time (the success of Warner Bros. would come in the next decade), their cartoons were beginning to feel stagnant. Disney had released America's first animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in 1937. This was a major blow to the Fleischers, not least because Disney had used rotoscoping, and Snow White herself had been designed and animated by Grim Natwick! The Fleischers would respond in 1939 with America's second animated feature, Gulliver's Travels. Telling a very loose version of Gulliver's trip to Lilliput, the film used rotoscoping as a stylistic device. The Lilliputians (including Gabby, a character who proved popular enough to use in the Animated Antics series) are all animated in a very cartoony style, while the prince and princess are attempts to look more like the realistic Snow White and Prince Charming (Grim Natwick was lured back to work on the film). Lemuel Gulliver, however, was rotoscoped and animated in a very realistic style, almost to the point where Gulliver looks like a live-action visitor in a world of animation. The resulting film is very charming, with some nice songs and an especially great sequence where the Lilliputians tie up the sleeping Gulliver. But the movie was a disappointment, and when it was released over Christmas 1939, audiences responded with indifference.
Undaunted, the Fleischers tried one more feature. Hoppity Goes to Town is a true lost classic of animation, a film that shows an excellent sense of story. It doesn't show off its animation more than a couple of times (including a breathtaking sequence where Hoppity is electrocuted), trying to tell a story that is in spite of animation, not because of it, something very sophisticated. Telling the story of an insect community in New York, the influence of this film is still felt in films like A Bug's Life and Antz. It could have done a great deal--especially coupled with the previous year's release of Disney's artistic triumph, Fantasia--to mature animation into an adult form of storytelling. But the release date proved to be most unfortunate: 7 December 1941. Pearl Harbor. The film was a failure and is mostly forgotten today.

The Fleischers continued on, however; Paramount had bought the film rights to the comic book Action Comics, which had introduced the Jerry Siegel-Joel Schuster creation Superman in 1938. The Fleischers were given the series, which proved to be the final artistic triumph of the animation studio. With a heavy reliance on rotoscoping, and the special use of skipped frames to suggest speed, the Superman series only lasted 10 cartoons with the Fleischers at the helm. The best of the series were The Mechanical Monsters (1941), The Arctic Giant (1941), and Volcano (1942). The last Dave Fleischer-directed cartoon, Terror on the Midway (1942), is surprisingly disappointing--Superman has better uses than fighting a mad gorilla. Production on the series stopped abruptly in early 1942, and Paramount carried on the series (as well as Popeye) with other animators.

Here's Superman in The Magnetic Telescope.

It is generally agreed today that what drove down the value of Fleischer cartoons was their unwillingness--indeed, total disinterest--to create character-driven stories. Popeye, Betty Boop, Superman; none of them emerge in the cartoons as real personalities. Sometimes it doesn't matter (one of their masterpieces, Snow-White, treats the story as beside the point, but has so much energy you barely notice), but often it feels like something is lacking. The technique is generally superlative. The stories? Superfluous.

Ever since the first Out of the Inkwell cartoon in 1916, Max and Dave had personality clashes. By 1942, they were unable to stand the presence of one another. A great deal of this was due to the fact that Max stole all the credit for the studio, despite the fact that Dave had directed every single cartoon to ever come out of their partnership--over 200 of them. Hollywood, and especially Paramount Pictures, had noticed that Dave was the real talent in the relationship, and had begun to feel that Max was unneccesary to the whole process. Max knew this, and decided to gamble on his future. As Hoppity was being edited in late 1941, Max made an announcement claiming he was the real genius, and that he would never work with Dave again. It proved to be the wrong move; Paramount closed down the Fleischer Studios (which they owned), took the copyrights to Superman, Popeye, Betty Boop, and others (which they also owned), and demanded that Max repay all the loan money he had received from the studio. Max immediately defaulted, as they knew he would. Paramount hired off most of the staff for their new in-house animation unit, Famous Studios, and put Max out of a job.

Dave, however, didn't stay with Famous Studios (whether he was even asked to stay is unclear). He went to Screen Gems, the animation arm of Columbia Pictures, and worked on the Fox & Crow series before quitting animatin altogether. He worked at Universal, doing animation effects for films such as The Birds (1963) and Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), and died peacefully in Los Angeles in 1979. He was 85.

Max and Dave never spoke again. He produced a storybook, Noah's Shoes, in 1944. It was thinly-veiled attack on his brothers. Max produced animation training films, worked for Bray, and died in 1972 at the age of 89. Though their characters would live on, their animation disappeared; with the exceptions of a few excellent collections (and a surprisingly good-quality DVD of Hoppity available through mail-order), there is a great lack of Fleischer animation available today. But, once upon a time, Max and Dave Fleischer were the kings of animation.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Papal Watch '05

To bring you the latest news: Pope John Paul II died on Saturday, 2 April 2005, and at this moment, remains dead. You may see him on many websites lying in state at St. Peter's in Vatican City, Rome, Italy, Europe, Earth. Though it has been three days since the death of the Pope, we are sorry to report that the Pope is still dead and there is, as yet, no new Pope. Candidates are being considered; results are expected soon. We will update you every 30 minutes for the next 12 days to remind you that a new Pope is expected in at least 12 days. If there is no new Pope in that time, we will break into regular programming every 15 minutes to update you on our future unplanned coverage over the event. Until then, the Pope is dead. Pope John Paul II, age 84, has died of natural causes over the weekend, and as far as our action news cameras can tell, remains in a state of death. He does not appear to be alive in any way, much less pining for the fjords. We will continue our useless coverage of a man who has already died to remind you of your own mortality until he begins his final decay, or at least much longer than would be appropriate or even respectful. If you're just joining us, Pope John Paul II is completely dead. We now return you to the final 128 seconds of Lizzie McGuire after a ten-minute commercial break, during which time we will have three promos for the news at noon, where we will reflect on the life of Pope John Paul II, who died on Saturday, 2 April 2005, of natural causes that were entirely fatal in nature. Thank you.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Well, Pope's Dead

Yes, Pope John Paul II died on Saturday at the age of 84. It was an unfortunately long, withdrawn, no doubt painful death, and it's good that his suffering was over. He'd worked hard all his life, and now he can rest.

But the deathwatch was unneccesary, wasn't it? I mean, did ABC need to break into every single program on Saturday just to say that there would be an announcement "later today" about the Pope's condition? Hey, how about just waiting until the announcement, and THEN breaking in? My sister's trying to watch Phil of the Future, for Christ's sake! Don't break in with news until there's some actual news to report.

At what point did the assholes in the media become so bad at their jobs? I mean, it isn't hard, really. Push a few buttons, get a pretty guy to read from a monitor. A monkey could do it. But those media fuckers smell blood, and they get a little crazed and, like sharks, go into frenzy mode. When Princess Diana was killed, programming was broken into and cameras were kept on the crash site for hours. They wanted to capture every moment in case, what, her head rolled out or something? Who would want to see that? Well, there was every channel, waiting to see what was going on, hoping desperately that they could be the first outlet to report that Diana was dead, or her arm had been cut off, or something, as long as it was horrible. Me, I'm pragmatic about it--I don't need to know about anything but the facts. Is she alright? Is she dead? And if you want to throw it in, how did it happen? Otherwise, I don't need to see a picture of her dead or dying.

11 September, 2001. I watched in horror as the second plane hit the World Trade Center, scared out of my mind. Word had it that there were other planes in the air, hijacked for use as weapons. Jesus, were we being invaded? What was going on? Don't we have reporters interested in keeping the social order who could calm us down?

"How many people are estimated dead?" Matt Lauer asks, not three minutes after. "How many are in the building? Do we know which flight it was? How many people were on board?" He could smell the blood. Matt Lauer just had to know how many lives had been ended in that moment. You could almost hear him thinking about it: "Salacious news! I need number! I need to know so I can be the first reporter to get the number! Dear God, I have to know about the deaths, WHY WON'T YOU TELL ME ABOUT THE DEATHS, HOW MANY PEOPLE ARE DEAD, TELL ME SO I CAN TELL AMERICA, GOD DAMN IT!" And people say he's such a nice man.

So, the deathwatch around the Pope seemed unneccesary to me. Tell me the Pope's dead, and I'll say, "Well, that's too bad, but he worked hard, and he was in a lot of pain, so it's good that his pain is over." That's all I need. Do we need to know everything about everyone all the time? Isn't the natural biological process of death sacred anymore, no matter how prominent the man? Why is a vigil necessary--it's not like his handlers are going to prop him up in front of the window and wave his hand for him. It's so ghoulish, this need to insert ourselves into the passing of someone many people considered important. Report the news when it happens, not before.

I guess I was also insulted by the assumption that the Pope was important to everyone. I'm not a Catholic, so his death doesn't really affect me. In fact, I disagreed with a lot of the things he said. And I have to ask, if he's gone off to heaven (a place some people refer to as the final REWARD), shouldn't his death be celebrated as the final moment of a distinguished life, instead of something tragic? And just for the record, an old man dying isn't tragic--he wasn't in a car accident or killed for his beliefs. He died of old age. Why do Catholics fear death if they're supposedly moving on to a better place?

Anyway...I'm sure that when Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi dies, there'll be an equal amount of coverage. America's a melting pot, right? Right?