John Lent has asked for my “experience getting involved in anime and animation events, writing and scholarship. What was it like in the beginning, how was interest generated, drawbacks, support, etc. How has anime studies developed and your role in the development.” Since this is for the International Journal of Comic Art, I am including my experience in comics as well.
I was born in Los Angeles, California, on Dec. 11, 1940. My parents taught me to read by reading to me the comic strips in the Los Angeles Times and Herald-Examiner, and buying me a subscription to Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories. I don’t know just when this was, but it must have been around the end of World War II because the Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse stories were still about victory gardens and fighting the Nazis and Japanese.
I discovered science fiction when I was nine years old. During my adolescence, I built a large collection of s-f paperbacks and magazines. I joined the weekly Los Angeles Science Fantasy while I was a student at UCLA, in 1960, and immediately became active in s-f fandom. I published my first s-f fanzine in 1961, and became active in comics fandom in 1963, just when it was starting.
One of the weekly UCLA film programs around 1962 was about two months of international animation features, from France, Japan, and the Soviet Union, mostly. I met several other animation buffs at these screenings. In the late 1960s, one of those buffs invited me to a series of casual weekly screenings at the nearby home of Bob Konikow. Konikow was another animation fan, and he also worked in the profession (I forget for which studio) with many contacts. Our attendance was from a dozen to 20 people each week, crowded into Konikow’s darkened living room to watch 16 m.m. prints of whatever the attendees owned or could borrow from a studio’s film library. Mark Kausler and Milt Gray usually ran our Bell & Howell projector. Victor Haboush brought the just-completed K-9000: A Space Oddity in 1968, and someone from Disney brought the studio library copy of the then-rare Victory Through Air Power. Bob Clampett brought an old print of his Republic short It’s a Grand Old Nag that was so ragged it barely went through the projector. “Jack Warner’s personal print of Bob Clampett’s Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs” was shown by popular demand at almost every other meeting. I still don’t know why I was invited, because all the other attendees seemed to be either young professional animators (with an occasional visit by a “legend” like Bob Clampett or Frank Tashlin) or a published underground cartoonist. Bill Stout, Dave Stevens, John Pound, George DiCaprio, Robert Williams, Bill Spicer, Richard Kyle, Tim Walker, Art Vitello, John Bruno, Bob Foster, and others were regular attendees. The screenings ended in 1973 when Bob Konikow moved away from Los Angeles. By then I considered myself an animation insider, if not a real professional.
Richard Kyle, whom I met at these screenings, and I were both also fans of comic books and newspaper strips, but neither of us cared much for costumed superheroes. We met frequently. He talked about the classic newspaper strips, and I was enthusiastic about European comics magazines like the weekly Spirou, Pilote, and Tintin. We gradually decided to start a specialty magazine and a small mail-order bookshop to promote the best comics that weren’t costumed superheroes. The magazine, Graphic Story World, would feature articles and reviews about famous American newspaper strips and “the best modern comics in Europe that nobody in America knew about”; and the mail-order bookshop, Graphic Story Bookshop, would make available through the magazine the comics that we featured in it. Richard, who lived in Long Beach, California, about 25 miles away, would write about American comics and edit and publish the magazine from his home. I would write about the foreign comics and their artists (mostly Belgian and French like Hergé, René Goscinny, Jean Giraud, and Peyo), review the then-rare American books about comics, conduct our correspondence with European publishers to order small quantities of the comics that we covered in the magazine, and prepare advertisements in the magazine for what we were selling.
In 1970 I discovered Japanese manga, and promptly added Japanese publishers to those from whom I tried to order books. My letters, in English, were ignored by the Japanese publishers except for one, Akita Shoten; so all of our Japanese manga were from that one publisher. I later learned that my letters to Akita Shoten were all answered by one employee, only because he wanted to practice his English.
The first issue of Graphic Story World; the Newsletter of the Graphic Story Arts was dated May 1971. Richard was corresponding with other comics fans throughout the world who didn’t gush over costumed superheroes, and many of them wrote for the magazine. Hames Ware. Dan Stryker. John Benson in Australia wrote about Australia’s famous (in that country) cartoonists. The magazine grew larger and more artistic; the first page was replaced by illustrated covers. I was ordering current comics in Dutch, French, Italian, Spanish, and Japanese, and storing our stock under my bed in my apartment in Culver City (a suburb of Los Angeles).
Both Graphic Story World and Graphic Story Bookshop were bigger successes than we could handle. Richard Kyle needed more space than his home to prepare each issue. The books I was ordering were filling my apartment. We decided that we needed an actual store, both for the magazine’s workshop and to store the foreign comics. Property rentals were then extremely cheap in downtown Long Beach, so we opened Graphic Story Bookshop there at 346 East Broadway in January 1972. We had a small gala opening with several of Richard’s comic-artist friends like Scott Shaw! congratulating us. Jack Kirby was the main star. One of my s-f artist friends, George Barr, designed our business card.
We had intended the store to actually be mainly Richard’s workshop for the magazine, and a storage place for the foreign comics. But people kept coming in and asking whether we sold American comic books as well? We felt that we were missing an opportunity, so we quickly set up to carry American comic books with Richard as the proprietor. A few months later we added current American s-f paperbacks.
The bookshop became more and more Richard’s baby. I became a silent partner, handling our foreign-ordering correspondence from my apartment in Culver City, and driving to Long Beach on weekends to process the mail orders for our books.
As the bookstore grew, Richard became so busy running it as an American comics shop that he no longer had time to produce the magazine. (There were two final issues under the Wonderworld title.) He had to hire an assistant. For me, the comics shop had never been more than a hobby, with my nine-to-five Monday-Friday profession as a catalogue librarian. I couldn’t afford to quit it to work in the bookshop; it didn’t earn enough to support both Richard and me. Without the magazine to advertise our foreign comics, mail-order sales disappeared, leaving me nothing to do. We agreed that I should sell my partnership in Graphic Story Bookshop, now Wonderworld Books, to Richard and drop out, which I did in December 1975. He soon changed its name again, to Richard Kyle, Books. I continued to drive to Long Beach each weekend to buy my American comics, and for long chats with Richard about comics, s-f, animation, and other subjects, until he closed the shop in 1996.
The bookshop led to my interest in Japanese anime. We had one customer who asked if we could get the Japanese comics versions of the Japanese TV cartoons that had been shown on American TV in the 1960s? Astro Boy. Gigantor. 8th Man. Kimba the White Lion. Speed Racer. Marine Boy. Prince Planet. The Amazing 3. The customer was Wendell Washer, who was an animator and storyboard artist for Filmation and Marvel Productions. Richard introduced him to me, and I tried to get the manga that he wanted (plus a copy for myself).
Washer had built a personal collection of animation shown on American TV, which he had taped on an industrial Sony U-matic video recorder. He held occasional parties at his home to show off these. I met several animation fans at Washer’s parties. Some who were particularly interested in the Americanized Japanese TV cartoons of the 1960s were Mark Merlino, Robin Leyden, Judith Niver, and Chris Balduc. Niver was the only other one who was an animation professional.
I was still attending the weekly meetings of the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society (LASFS), so I arranged for Washer to present a program of Japanese s-f & fantasy TV animation in July 1975. This was probably the earliest screening in America of TV anime for a non-Japanese audience.
Mark Merlino also became a regular attendee of the LASFS for a few years. When the first home video recorders went on sale during the Christmas 1975 season, Merlino bought one. He started recording anything science-fictional on TV. S-f movies. Star Trek reruns. In February 1976 the first Japanese giant-robot TV cartoons came to American TV. These were unmistakably Japanese; they were shown on L.A.’s multi-cultural Channel 52, in Japanese with English subtitles. During 1976 Merlino often brought his Toshiba V-Cord to LASFS meetings when there wasn’t a program, and showed an hour or two of what he’d recorded. This led us to start the Cartoon/Fantasy Organization (C/FO), the first American fan club for anime, in May 1977.
The C/FO quickly grew. Merlino traded tapes with fans in cities like New York and San Francisco with Japanese-community TV that showed different programs. In 1980 we began organizing C/FO chapters in other cities around the U.S. and Canada. But most of these anime fans were teenagers who soon wandered on to other interests; then during the late 1980s, the fans switched to computer anime websites and corresponding without needing the C/FO. By 1989, the club had shrunk so much that it was dissolved as an “international club,” and the “Los Angeles chapter” went back to being the only C/FO. It’s still meeting on the third Saturday of each month.
I hardly noticed, because beginning in 1979, I began writing articles on anime. These were for professional fan magazines like Comics World and Starlog at first. In 1980, the San Diego Comic-Con (today, Comic-Con International) presented me with its Inkpot Award for helping to introduce Japanese anime to America. Later as anime became more popular in America, I wrote for anime specialty magazines like Anime Invasion and Protoculture Addicts as well. By 2004 I had written enough to collect my articles into a book: Watching Anime, Reading Manga: 25 Years of Essays and Reviews.
I was a catalog librarian for Hughes Aircraft Company for over 20 years. In the late 1980s, the Cold War ended, Hughes stopped getting government defense contracts and began downsizing, and I was laid off in 1990. Carl Macek and Jerry Beck had started Streamline Pictures in Los Angeles in October 1988, one of the first American professional companies to license Japanese anime and distribute it theatrically and on home video. I had been providing free consulting advice from their beginning, and when I lost my library job, Carl and Jerry persuaded me to become Streamline’s first employee, in January 1991. I was a Streamline Pictures employee until the company went out of business in March 2002.
To backtrack, furry fandom -- the fandom for anthropomorphic (mostly talking) animals coalesced out of s-f fandom and comics fandom during the 1980s. I became an enthusiastic furry fan from its start. Many furry fans were amateur and professional cartoonists and animators. Through associating with them, I became the writer of a few comic books, and of more articles about comics and furry fandom, such as “Talking Animals in World War II Propaganda” (Flayrah, Jan. 5, 2012) and “An Illustrated Chronology of Furry Fandom, 1966-1996” (Flayrah, July 15, 2012).
After Streamline Pictures closed its doors, I became a freelance writer specializing in anime. I was writing articles about anime, and three monthly anime columns for Animation World Network, Comics Buyer’s Guide, and Newtype U.S.A. when I had a major stroke in March 2005. I was hospitalized for over a year, and I have been paralyzed, bedridden in a convalescent hospital ever since. I keep busy via a laptop computer, writing a weekly animation column, and writing and editing animation and furry fandom books for several specialty publishers.
But enough about me! Here are some memories from my longtime love affair with animation (mostly anime) and comics.
My first comic-book hero, when I was five or six years old, wasn’t a costumed superhero but Amster the Hamster in DC Comics’ funny-animal titles. I wanted to grow up to be just like him! He was shorter than everyone around him -- Dizzy Dog, Doodles Duck, Bo Bunny, McSnertle the Turtle -- but he was a fast-talking con artist who could convince everyone to see things his way. As I was a little boy surrounded by taller adults and older children, I felt that this was an ideal “power” to have. (I later learned that Amster was a funny-animal imitation of the comedian W. C. Fields.)
I especially loved all the funny-animal comics drawn in that “world,” in that art style. I gradually learned that they were all written and drawn by Sheldon Mayer, a lifelong DC Comics staffer. He became one of my first favorite cartoonists, along with Carl Barks and Walt Kelly. Many years later, I participated in a special feature on funny-animal comic books for an issue of the fan magazine Amazing Heroes (#129, Nov. 15, 1987). I was given the chance to interview several veteran funny-animal artists, and I lost no time contacting Sheldon Mayer, who was then retired. “Why do you especially like funny animals?” I asked. “I don’t! I think they’re stupid! But DC management said we needed some funny-animal stories and I was assigned to write and draw ‘em, so I did.” Oh.
When Richard Kyle and I turned our Graphic Story Bookshop into an American comics shop in the early 1970s, we soon discovered that there were problems in dealing with Los Angeles’ magazine-distribution monopoly. As a comic-book specialty store, we would get a request for something we were sold out of, say the latest issue of New Gods. We would assure the customer that we would order it and place the order with the distributor, but a copy of Little Lulu or a Western would be delivered instead. When we complained, the distributor’s truck driver would answer, “You ordered a comic book, didn’t you? Well, we delivered a comic book.” The distributor also didn’t like orders for single copies. Another problem was that the comics were traditionally delivered each month in bundles tightly wrapped in twine or wire. The top and bottom copies in each bundle would be cut by the binding; not much, but our customers wanted copies in Mint Condition.
Our solution to these problems was for me to drive to the distributor’s warehouse each Saturday and pick up the special orders myself. I also went through all its copies of each title to high-grade them, picking only those with perfectly centered covers and color registration. The distributor’s employees’ attitude was that they were glad to let me come in and do their work for them. I gradually realized from overhearing their partial conversations that the distributor was owned by Organized Crime! Its main value to its bosses was as a legitimate front for laundering the profits from their less-legal activities. I kept quiet and didn’t say anything.
From practically the moment I discovered manga, I became a rabid fan of Osamu Tezuka. I learned in early 1977 that Tezuka had just created Unico, a new full-color comic serialized in a girls’ manga magazine published by Sanrio Ltd., which by coincidence had just opened a girls’ shop called Gift Gate in nearby Gardena. I hurried there to see if they had it. They did, in issues of Lyrica, a fancy girls’ comic magazine. I bought all the issues of Lyrica, and I returned to Gift Gate every month to get the future issues; not just for Unico, but for a beautiful fairy-tale strip called Metamorphoses by an American artist, Don Morgan.
A couple of months later, a friend told me that some Japanese executives had come to Los Angeles and were planning to publish an American version of Lyrica for girls. Since I was probably the only American to have ever heard of Lyrica, maybe I could present myself as a marketing expert to them and at least get some free samples. It seemed worth a try, so I made an appointment with the Sanrio editorial office in Santa Monica. I had hardly opened my mouth when I realized that they thought that I was a professional comic-book writer come to propose a feature for their American Lyrica. This was too good an opportunity to pass up, so I made another appointment to return in a week with some story ideas to offer them. They bought two ideas. They also hired me to develop a concept by someone else about a young princess of a post-atomic barbarian kingdom, into a 60-page serial at $60 a page. They would hire an artist to draw it.
For the rest of 1977 and early 1978, I spent my spare time divided between the C/FO anime fan club, and hanging around Sanrio’s rented executive office. Angela, my story, was being drawn by Doug Wildey, the writer/artist of the Western newspaper strip Ambler and comic-book Rio, and creator and writer of Jonny Quest for Hanna-Barbera. Sanrio was paying Wildey $120 a page to draw Angela, which included watercolor-painting each page since Lyrica was to be printed in full color. Mark Evanier, who was writing a serial about a teenage girl who was an 19th Century Mississippi riverboat captain, said that my sale of Angela qualified me to join a club of professional comic book and magazine writers and cartoonists living in the Los Angeles area; the Comic Art Professional Society (CAPS). I did, and I am still a member although I’ve only written a couple of comic-book stories since then. Evanier’s story, Riverboat, was being drawn by Dan Spiegle. The prolific Evanier had also sold them The Time Twisters, drawn by Pat Boyette; and Keystone, drawn by Will Meugniot. Dave “Rocketeer” Stevens was there; he was drawing a s-f story that he may have written himself. Evanier vaguely remembers stories that others were doing; something about an Indian brave, drawn by Rick Hoppe, and something drawn by Willie Ito, a veteran Hanna-Barbera cartoonist. One that was turned down was “Queen Cutlass,” about a female pirate captain in a sword-and-sorcery world, by writer Don Glut and artist Rick Hoberg. The Sanrio editors didn’t like it.
As time went on, I and most of the American comics professionals got the increasing impression that the Sanrio executives were completely out of touch with the reality of the American comic-book industry. The 100+ page Lyrica could not be printed by any regular comics printer. It would have to cost a lot more than the then-standard 15¢. It would presumably contain advertising for Sanrio’s merchandise for girls, which would particularly turn away any boys who might otherwise buy it. Would it fit onto newsstands (comics specialty shops were just beginning) along with other comic books? What would the regular newsstand distributors think of such an oddball comic book? They had recently killed Martin Goodman’s 1974-’75 attempt to create a new line of Atlas Comics, by declining to distribute them because they felt that the comics racks were already too crowded. The Sanrio executives casually dismissed all these concerns, saying, “We will take care of that. You just do what we are paying you to do.” We shrugged and, as the saying goes, “took the money and ran”.
We could not help hearing about Sanrio’s other big project, to create a theatrical animated “modern Fantasia.” Sanrio had set up a fully-staffed animation studio nearby, and some of the animators occasionally visited the Sanrio offices. Don Morgan, who was drawing the Metamorphoses strip in the Japanese Lyrica, was a layout artist on the feature. The animators had allied concerns. Some of the animation did not make any story sense. The animation had nothing to do with the music, which was often too short or too long for the scene. One scene had the boy walking and walking and walking and walking, for no reason other than to “use up” all the music. Some said bluntly that the director, Takashi (no last name) had been appointed only because he was from Japan, unlike the Anglos and the Japanese Nisei and Sansei born and raised in America. Everyone complained that Takashi did not know what he was doing, but would not admit it. Again, the Sanrio executives said, “Don’t worry about it. Just animate like we’re paying you to do.”
Business Week published an article in its May 22, 1978 issue about Sanrio’s plans to take over the American animated film and comic-book industries. We shrugged, took their money, and didn’t say anything.
Metamorphoses premiered to great fanfare in NYC on May 3, 1978. If it wasn’t the biggest bomb in cinematic history, it was close. The animation was smooth and rich, but B-O-R-I-N-G! If the story were any more arty/intellectual, it would have been condescending. The reviews were not kind.
I was invited to an “exclusive premiere screening” at a swanky Century City theater on June 14. The theater was packed, largely with the film’s production crew and their families. Each attendee got a fancy press kit with a cover full-color reproduction of the movie’s poster showing wild horses galloping out of the ocean’s foam, by Western Printing artist Mo Gollub, the painter of many of Western Printing’s Gold Key comic book covers. The screening was a special disaster, because in addition to the movie’s other problems, the sound track was turned up to full volume. The orchestral pop-rock music was so deafening that it literally drove some of the audience out of the theater. It was rumored that it was so loud that plaster was flaking from the ceiling, while Takashi was complaining, “Can’t you turn up the sound any louder?” The lack of dialogue and having the same Boy and Girl as cartoon actors portraying the protagonists in each story confused many people. They thought the Boy and Girl were supposed to be the same characters throughout, and “why is the Boy dying over and over again?”
I don’t think that Metamorphoses was ever shown again. Columbia Pictures had given it a limited release in Los Angeles on the same day, and the comments from the few other theaters that showed it were the same (except for the overly-loud music). It was quickly pulled from release. Nothing was seen for over a year, then in May 1979 it was released in an entirely new form. It was retitled Winds of Change; it was cut from 89 minutes to 82 minutes; the arrangement of the five sequences was altered; the Boy was named Wondermaker; the orchestral rock score was completely discarded for a new disco score by Alex Costandinos that was composed to fit the action; and narration by Peter Ustinov was added to explain, often sarcastically, the action. In October it was released in Japan in a third cut, retitled Orpheus of the Stars, with singers Arthur Simms and Pattie Brooks replacing the Rolling Stones. RCA Columbia Pictures Home Video released Winds of Change as a “Magic Window” children’s video in the 1980s, which was rereleased as a regular home video in January 1992, but no version of Metamorphoses is available today.
By this time, the Lyrica project was long dead, along with Sanrio’s other American filmmaking plans. All that the Sanrio execs would say as they closed their Santa Monica office was, “We have done more market research, and we have decided that the time is not right for a Lyrica-type magazine in America. But you have done what we asked you to do, so you may keep the money.” They even gave the artists their stories back to sell elsewhere. (If they could. I know that Doug Wildey complained that no American comic-book publisher was interested in buying a 60-page romantic s-f story designed for young girls.)
I treated my $3,600 ($3,700 including my second idea, which they were going to have me write once Lyrica was a success) as a windfall that gave me enough with what I already had to buy a brand-new car. So I can’t complain. It would have been nice to see Angela published, though. Doug Wildey’s art was excellent.
As a writer of articles about anime, and as secretary of the C/FO, I wrote to some of the largest anime studios requesting illustrations that I could use in my articles. This apparently caused some consternation in at least one studio, Tatsunoko Animation Company. I received a letter that said approximately, “We understand that your club is showing video copies of our animation without permission. We cannot permit this for legal reasons. But as long as you are showing them, would you please show them to the executives of American television companies who might license the American rights?” Unfortunately, the C/FO had no professional contacts. Or maybe fortunately -- if we had come to the attention of the professional studios, we might have gotten into more serious legal conflicts.
The 1984 Summer Olympic games were held in Los Angeles. Both the United States Olympic Committee and the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee agreed that there was only one man, or company, to design the 1984 mascot: Walt Disney Productions. Disney assigned one of its cartoonists to the job, C. Robert (Bob) Moore. While Moore was not quite ordered to make an American bald eagle the mascot, the vast majority of the organizers felt that the mascot should officially represent all America, not just Los Angeles or California. The only other choice seriously considered was the American bison (buffalo), and Moore pointed out that when a buffalo was anthropomorphized to stand on two legs, it looked top heavy. The eagle had its own problems. It looked too stern or martial, and it lacked hands. Moore was asked to design a child-friendly “cuddly, patriotic eagle,” and he successfully designed the wings so they could double as arms and hands. Sam the Olympic Eagle was unveiled to the public on Aug. 4, 1980.
Sam the Olympic Eagle’s popularity from 1980 until Summer 1984 should not need repeating. If he was not merchandized more heavily than the Soviet Union’s 1980 Misha the Russian bear cub, it is only because both were so heavily merchandized that the difference is inconsequential. A major problem that Sam never overcame was that his head of white feathers made him look like a senior citizen. He may have been cuddly, but he came across at best as a kindly old man. Whether Moore ever tried to design Sam as a child or an athletic youth is not known, but despite being shown as participating in all of the Summer Olympics sports, he was unmistakably an adult. Although he was designed by a Disney artist, there was never any demand in America to animate him. Sam was withdrawn according to IOC rules within a year after the 1984 Summer games were over, and was soon forgotten.
But Sam did become a star of a weekly TV cartoon series -- in Japan. “Eagle Sam,” 51 weekly episodes directed by Hideo Nishimaki and Kenji Kodama, at Dax International; broadcast on Tokyo Broadcast System (TBS) on Thursdays from 7:00 to 7:30 p.m., from April 7, 1983 to March 29, 1984.
“Eagle Sam” never played outside Japan. Those who have seen it have wondered how it ever came to play IN Japan! The obvious answer, whether true or not, was that someone must have decided to get revenge against America for World War II.
Eagle Sam was a gun-waving private investigator. (Everyone knows that all Americans are gun-happy.) He had a human secretary, Canary Karina, who may or may not have been supposed to be pretty -- with character designer Yoshio Kabashima’s simplistic art style it was hard to tell -- but there was no doubt about the amount of cleavage she showed. Sam and Canary were always accompanied on their cases by Gosling, her slingshot-wielding kid brother. Sam was portrayed as the only one in Olympic City (a thinly-disguised stereotype of Hollywood) who could solve any crimes or catch any criminals, because the police were too busy eating doughnuts, playing golf, or beating up innocent people. The police uniform’s badge was a Star of David. Naturally, Chief Albatross and Officer Bogie (or Bogey) don’t like to be shown up, so they -- with Albatross’s daughter Chichi -- were always trying to sabotage Sam. Usually Albatross thought up the schemes and assigned Bogie to carry them out, but Bogie seldom got farther than being distracted by Canary’s cleavage. When Sam got into a tight spot, he would toss his Olympic hat with the five glowing rings into the air, reach into it, and pull out whatever he needed. The character who gave Sam the most trouble was the jive-talkin’, skateboarding, shades-wearing cockroach, Gokuro, who drove him crazy with his sassy mockery. (Cockroach in Japanese is gokiburi.) Other characters were Mr. Pelican the hippie, and Thunderbird the weight-lifter.
A lot of people do not believe this existed, but anime fans got sample episodes. But despite its momentary incredulity value, “Eagle Sam” is for little children. It’s shallow and boring.
Anime got me into the biggest fight that I have ever been in, with Bill Scott of “Rocky and Bullwinkle” fame, at the meetings of ASIFA-Hollywood. Scott dismissed all Japanese animation as unimaginative costumed-hero stuff, in horribly limited animation. I rebutted, “You should talk! Rocky and Bullwinkle may be brilliant, but it’s hardly for the quality of its animation. You have it animated at one of the cheapest studios in Mexico City. As for the giant-robot stereotype, there’s much more variety in Japanese animation than there is in American animation. It’s that the anime fans don’t want to watch anything besides giant robots.” But it was a lost cause. I was drowned out by Scott and the other American animation-industry veterans at ASIFA-Hollywood chanting, “Poor animation! Awful animation!” I dropped out of ASIFA-Hollywood for several years.
My record as a comics-fandom fanzine writer-publisher got me a job with Fantagraphics Books’ twice-monthly Amazing Heroes magazine. I have already described my (very short) interview with Sheldon Mayer. Another memorable moment was when I got press credentials to cover a press conference on Ralph Bakshi’s “Cool World,” which was just finishing production in 1992. There were about a dozen in the press party. We were given a tour of the busy animation studio, set up in a rented warehouse; and then Bakshi came out to say a few words about how imaginative “Cool World” was and how confident the producers were that it would be a hit. Any questions? A large man immediately asked how many cels had been made for the movie, and what arrangements had been made to sell them through a collectibles gallery? Ralph tried to steer the conversation back to “Cool World” as cinematic art, but the man insisted on asking about the commercial market for the cels, as though the movie was just a scheme to manufacture saleable movie memorabilia. You could see Ralph fighting to keep his temper. (My article on “Cool World” appeared in the final issue of Amazing Heroes, #204 in July 1992.)
In April 1993, UCLA’s Animation Workshop hosted a birthday party for animation veteran Walter Lantz, then 94 years old. (I think that it was at this party that Lantz announced that he had recently found his birth certificate, and was shocked to learn that he was a year older than he had always thought. He was born in 1899, not 1900 as his parents had told him.) Lantz was wheelchair-bound and very weak, but his mind was still sharp. He died the next March, just before the Animation Workshop could hold a 1994 birthday party for him.
Someone at that party asked Lantz, who worked on his first cartoon in 1915 and directed his first cartoon in 1924, what he thought had been the greatest technological development in the history of animation. The addition of sound to silent cartoons? The multiplane camera? The replacement of hand cel coloring by computer coloring? Lantz surprised everyone by insisting that it was the introduction of home VCRs in 1975.
I don’t know if he was recorded, but he said approximately:
In 1975 animation was a dying art! All the theatrical animation studios were closed except Disney, and by 1975 even Disney was moribund. Animation for TV was all toy and cereal commercials, and was so bland that nobody but little children watched it. The very few festivals of animation were glorifications of the past, attended mostly by animation veterans and cinematic scholars, not the public. Then in 1975 the first home video cassette recorders came out. They took about a decade to become widespread, but suddenly the public was asking TV stations to show more classic cartoons so they could record them to watch whenever they wanted. Movie studios and whoever owned the rights to old cartoons found that there was big money in putting them out on video. The first video releases of old prints were later upgraded to remastered prints with original title cards. Today new animation features are being made because the studios know that they can make as much or more from video sales as from theatrical screenings. Animation that hasn’t been seen in decades is available again, and permanently for whenever anyone wants to see it, not just when its studio re-releases it theatrically or on TV. The animation industry was just short of dying when the first VCRs came out; now it’s bigger than ever!
In late 2013 I was asked by a reader of my weekly anime column what I knew about Blue Sky Studios’ “Robots 2”? I answered that it didn’t exist. No sequels were ever made to Blue Sky’s 2005 animated movie, and as far as I knew, none were planned. In reply, I was sent its trailer on YouTube as proof that it was real!
Duh! until I looked at “Robots 2” more closely. From its credits it appeared to be an unauthorized sequel made in Thailand for release in India during 2012. The voice cast was audibly American, but there was a reference to the Ramayana which was unlikely for an American movie. The giveaway was the title of “Yak, the Giant King” buried in this trailer. Sure enough; Wikipedia says that “Yak, the Giant King” was an October 2012 release by Workpoint Pictures, a studio in a city near Bangkok,” for distribution in Thailand, India, and Malaysia. I can believe that the Thai animators may have been inspired by the robot character design in Blue Sky’s feature, but “Yak, the Giant King” is no “Robots 2.” I assume that some Asian distributor got it and retitled it without authorization.
So this is where I stand today. I don’t get out of the convalescent hospital much except in my wheelchair, but I’ve had two books already published during 2017, with two more planned. I keep busy.