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Photo: Warner Brothers.
Bugs Bunny.

My husband was watching the Met’s Götterdämmerung around 4:30 this morning, so naturally I was reminded of Looney Tunes. Really. Bugs Bunny and the gang provided the best introduction to opera anywhere.

An article by Jaime Weinman at the Walrus (excerpted from his book Anvils, Mallets and Dynamite: The Unauthorized Biography of Looney Tunes) reflects on the durability of the Warner Brothers series.

“I grew up in a period when it seemed normal that a child born in 1976 would prefer to spend his Saturday morning watching cartoons from the 1940s and ’50s. A lot of the people I know enjoyed the same experience. Why did several generations watch old Looney Tunes alongside new work and actually prefer the stuff made before they were born? It was partly a historical accident caused by television’s demand for endless material at a relatively high cost. …

“Every television station required was a supply of preexisting content, something that might cost money to run but not to produce. The broadcasting rights for pre-1948 Warner Bros. cartoons weren’t very expensive, and the show was far better than most of the programming available for the same price.

“So part of Looney Tunes’ enduring success reflects the simple power of money. They were made for the big screen, and while they weren’t lavishly budgeted compared to the cartoons of Disney, they had much more time and per-unit money than television cartoons. On television, the Looneys were up against shows that had to turn out twenty-two minutes per week and looked like it. … Looney Tunes seemed edgier and freer than the new material. …

“However much kids loved watching Looney Tunes, the cartoons never got the credit they deserved. There hasn’t been much mainstream film criticism about them. When they were being made, they were almost totally ignored by all but two critics: James Agee and Manny Farber. Later, after the cartoons started appearing on TV, younger critics got interested. …

“The case has sometimes been made for the great Looney Tunes characters as underdogs, but it’s never a convincing case because the characters aren’t actually struggling against anything. They seldom have to try hard: as long as it’s funny, they can produce a weapon out of nowhere, and the most horrific acts of violence cause them no stronger reaction than irritation. In a more serious comedy, the characters feel an exaggerated version of what we might feel in their shoes, whether anger, fear, or determination. We can’t usually identify much with a Looney Tunes character because we know that nothing has consequences for them. …

“Bill Scott, who co-wrote cartoons at Warner Bros. for several years and then moved to [United Productions of America, the cartoon studio usually considered the most artistic and ambitious] said that ‘the kiss of death at UPA was to be considered a Warner Brothers writer.’ Looney Tunes writers, he added, were dismissed as ‘clothesline gag’ writers, for whom a story was just a cheap, insubstantial way to support the gags.

“That description wasn’t exactly wrong. If Warner Bros. creators have a choice between telling a joke and giving the film a consistent style, they’ll almost always choose the joke. …

“Warner Bros. cartoons had arguably the best soundtracks in American film comedy. Mel Blanc, who voiced all the important recurring characters except Elmer Fudd, was so essential to the studio that he became the first voice actor ever to get credit for short cartoons; composer Carl Stalling, who essentially invented the art of animated movie music when he worked for Disney, spent most of his career at Warner Bros., working closely with the directors (and sound effects wizard Treg Brown) to set a tempo for all the animated action and make sure that the sounds and movements complemented each other perfectly. The result of all this is a series where the dialogue has the wise-guy tone and fast pace of radio comedy, the music is funny, the animation is funny, the sound effects are funny, and none of them ever do something that’s redundant. …

“Like music, the laughs come from timing and rhythm. The gag is divided into three basic beats: Bugs hands the firecracker to the parrot; the firecracker explodes; the smoke clears, showing the ashen but otherwise unharmed bird. This all happens in just a few seconds, but each of these beats is held just long enough for it to play properly.” More at the Walrus, here.

To return to where I started today, here are a few online reviews of the Looney Tunes opera themes.

On “What’s Opera, Doc?” … “Elmer Fudd becomes the hero of Siegfried as he woos Brunhilde (played by Bugs Bunny in drag–if a rabbit can be in drag). This is a classic animated feature with full orchestration. It integrates the eternal effort of Elmer to kill the wabbit while repeatedly falling for the smart alecky rodent. The singing, of course, is quite horrible, but great credit to Mel Blanc for carrying on and staying in tune. What a remarkable talent Blanc was!”

On “Long-Haired Hare” … “Here Bugs takes his revenge on an opera singer named Giovanni Jones and does so with hilarious consequences. The last few minutes are absolutely priceless and one of my all time favourite endings in a Looney Tunes cartoon. Mel Blanc is brilliant as Bugs and Nicolai Shutorov gives a bravura singing performance as Giovanni.”

On “The Rabbit of Seville” … Bugs and Elmer “wander on to an opera stage and continue their combativeness to the music of the Barber of Seville. Apparently, there was a time when the average citizen had a thing for opera and these cartoon presentations fed into that. Anyway, the pacing is masterful. Elmer is about as gullible as he can be, and Bugs takes advantage at every turn. The pacing of the famous musical piece works very well and our two heroes find their way to a masterful conclusion.”

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Photo: Karen Robinson/The Observer
Cartoonist Simone Lia can’t resist painting worms, but her interests go way beyond humble invertebrates.

I happened to run into two very different stories about comics yesterday and thought I would make a post referencing both. The featured article is an interview with Observer cartoonist Simone Lia. Kate Kellaway was the interviewer.

” ‘Whenever I was between projects,’ says Simone Lia – comic-strip cartoonist in the Observer and author of a new children’s book, The Secret Time Machine and the Gherkin Switcheroo, about the unlikely friendship between a bird and a worm – ‘I couldn’t stop painting worms. I didn’t know why.’ …

“She knew enough, she goes on, to know she should pay attention to this obsession. And, with a laugh, she explains she realised how much she admired the character of the worm:

‘They’re very humble, live in the ground, do good work, get on with it.’ These qualities, she says, ‘I’d like for myself.’

“If this sounds like a Christian aspiration, it will not surprise Lia’s many fans. In 2011, she beguiled readers with the book that made her name: Please God, Find Me a Husband! The belief in God was no joke. But the book was very funny.

“In one irresistible sequence, Lia, whose boyfriend had just ended their relationship by email, walks disconsolately across Leicester Square. She hears the lyrics of INXS’s Need You Tonight playing from a bar and believes God is communicating with her. Before long, in her mind’s eye, she is dancing friskily with God – a bearded, bespectacled bloke in a pale blue, calf-length dress. Her story leads her to a religious order in Wales (‘I’m so not going to find a husband hanging out with nuns’) and to Australia, where she meets a handsome horseman who, in the way of handsome horsemen, disappears over the horizon.

“It is eight years since that book was published (it has five worms on one of its opening pages). As we sit down in Lia’s front room, I ask how long it took God to get his act together. ‘Ten years,’ she says. …

“Her latest children’s book … The Secret Time Machine and the Gherkin Switcheroo describes the challenge of living with an old bird who does the crossword puzzle and does not want to go out, and a worm who dreams of wriggling back underground. Having said that, the worm overturns Lia’s definition of wormdom by mainly living above ground and by not being humble at all. He swings between feeling he is worthless and believing himself a genius. …

“In the interests of honesty, she feels she should not leave out ‘the dark bit’ of her life. … ‘Putting things mildly, there was a lot of fighting at home. I felt very alone and felt even Jesus was not listening to my prayers – it felt like he did not care. That is when I stopped praying, became interested in art. Drawing and painting was an escape. I could enter another world and forget about feeling lonely or afraid. … That might be how Fluffy came about.’

“Fluffy (2007) was a graphic novel about the relationship between a rabbit and the floundering human being he thinks of as his dad. It looks like a children’s book but isn’t. … It was while researching for Fluffy in Sicily (the rabbit goes on hols there) that Lia rediscovered God. A randomly encountered Mormon asked her whether she still prayed. She went into a baroque church, but all she could think of was to ask God for a better hotel room (she feared she had been staying in a brothel).

“ ‘Despite my rubbishy prayer, I felt something out of the world in that moment. It’s very hard to explain but it was as if my heart opened up. … From that moment, something shifted inside of me.”

Read more about Lia and how her life has affected her comics here. And for a completely different take on cartoons, read the Paris Review article on comics as poetry, here.

On second thought, tying religion to comics and tying poetry to comics may not be so different after all. Depends on where you’re coming from.

In the Paris Review, Ivan Brunetti explains why comic strips like “Jump Shot,” by Lynda Barry (below), deserve to be called poetry.

lyndabarry_jumpshot-1

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Gudetama, a gloomy egg yolk in a Japanese cartoon series, is one manifestation of an offbeat sense of humor that some observers see as uniquely Japanese.

Patrick Winn wrote the Global Post story.

“Is it possible to market malaise? In Japan at least, the answer is yes. Meet Gudetama, the anthropomorphic embodiment of severe depression.

“Gudetama is a cartoon egg yolk that feels existence is almost unbearable. It shivers with sadness. It clings to a strip of bacon as a security blanket. Rather than engage in society, it jams its face into an eggshell and mutters the words, ‘Cold world. What can we do about it?’

“Gudetama may hate the world beyond its shell. But the world — within Japan’s borders, at least — sure loves Gudetama.

“The misanthropic egg was introduced last year by Sanrio, a Tokyo-based corporation devoted to creating cutesy characters and licensing out their images. Its flagship character, Hello Kitty, is valued at $7 billion and appears on lunch boxes and pajama sets across the globe.

“Gudetama is following Hello Kitty’s lead. Its distressed little face now appears on fuzzy slippers, iPhone covers, plush dolls and even a themed credit card by Visa. …

“Matt Alt, a Japanese-speaking American and specialist in Japan’s pop culture, [decodes] Japan for Western audiences. [He opines that] in Japan, there’s a long history of personifying and anthropomorphizing inanimate objects.

“Gudetama is the most recent of a long, long lineage of mascot characters. Many Japanese mascots will express emotions that Western mascots would not. In the West, mascots are used almost exclusively to cheer people up. In Japan, they’re often used to get a point across or act as mediators in situations where you wouldn’t want to express yourself directly.” More here.

Some US advocates for people with mental illness object strongly to  humor on the subject (even criticizing phrases like “wild and crazy guy”). Others recognize that there are those who use humor to help themselves get well. Wonder what they would think of this egg yolk.

Photo: Sanrio

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I like to listen to the radio show Studio 360 (on the arts) as I drive to tai chi Saturday mornings.

In October, I heard about a contest the show was running. The Studio 360 website explains: “We challenged you to The Great Studio 360 Doodle Dare. Cartoonist and newly-minted MacArthur ‘genius’ grant winner Alison Bechdel started a drawing — of a disconcerted young woman grasping at something unseen — and we asked you to complete the picture.

“More than two hundred doodlers took our challenge, putting Alison’s character in every imaginable situation — fighting spaghetti, hitching a ride on a dragonfly, hanging off of Iggy Azalea’s backside. …

“ ‘I was amazed by how many submissions there were,’ says Bechdel. ‘And many of them were really, really wonderful.’

Carlolita Johnson explained in her submission that the drawing depicts something that really happened to her. ‘She had a little dog that was rolling around on a cliff above the ocean and the dog went over,’ Bechdel explains to [Studio 360 host] Kurt Andersen. ‘So it was exciting to me, because I like to write about my own life, to see someone turn this into a real scene from their own life.’ ”

More here.

Alison Bechdel’s original drawing next to the winning submission from Carlolita Johnson (Studio 360 Doodle Dare) 

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Photo: Mark Andrew Boyer
Norm Burns, member of the U.S. CanAm Oldtimers 70-B team.

Trust Bill Littlefield at WBUR’s “Only a Game” to come up with the quirky sports stories.

In July, reporter Dan Brekke checked out the unusual legacy of a cartoonist who loved ice hockey and didn’t see why anyone should quit playing just because they got old.

Brekke writes, “Less than a year ago, 69-year-old Gary Powdrill was having a quintuple bypass open-heart surgery. But right now, he’s focused on a tight game between his hockey squad, the Central Massachusetts Rusty Blades, and the hometown Woodstock Flyers. And things aren’t going so well.

“The Rusty Blades are one of 68 teams playing in ‘Snoopy’s Senior World Hockey Tournament,’ an event created by ‘Peanuts’ cartoonist Charles Schulz – ‘Sparky’ to his family and hockey buddies – at the beautifully eccentric arena he and his first wife built.

“The tournament is for players from age 40 and up, with divisions set aside for 50, 60 and 70-year-olds.

“Steve Lang, one of the thousand or so players who has suited up this year, is skating for the Woodstock Flyers – the name refers to Charles Schulz’s little yellow bird character. The Flyers and Rusty Blades are fighting for third place in a division for players 60 and up. But unfortunately, according to Lang, the Flyers ‘don’t fly like the bird.’ …

“ ‘We’ve got ages from 76 down to 62,’ Lang said. ‘I’m 75. You know, we think like rabbits, skate like turtles.’ ”

New Yorker Bob Santini, 82, says, ” ‘I try to do the best I can, but the most important thing about a tournament like this is the camaraderie.’ …

“Jean Schulz, Sparky’s widow, says that’s just the way her husband wanted it.” More here.

Photo: Dan Brekke
Jean Schulz, widow of cartoonist Charles “Sparky” Schulz

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The website of radio show “Studio 360,” here, offers a glimpse into an intriguing new graphic novel. Check out the slide show illustrating:

(1) “The covers of Gene Luen Yang’s two-part graphic novel Boxers & Saints.

(2) “A page from the book. The author describes the Boxers, depicted here, as poor villagers who believed they could summon the Chinese gods from the skies, who would grant them superpowers. ‘I grew up reading superhero comic books,’ Yang says. ‘And that was one of the ways I found a connection with these Boxers.’

(3) “Boxers transformed for a battle.

(4) “Four-Girl, who isn’t accepted by her family, converts to Catholicism — but she has many questions about the new religion.

(5) “Yang, a practicing Catholic, says he ‘grew up within a tension of Western belief systems and Eastern culture.’ Aspects of the book reflect ‘an ambivalence I have about my own identity.’

(6) “American Born Chinese is Yang’s semi-autobiographical story of a kid desperate to fit in. At one point, the story turns into a sitcom with a laugh track and comic relief courtesy of the grossly stereotypical Chin-Kee. Yang says he wanted make his readers squirm.”

I heard the radio interview with the artist. He said it worried him when people told him they loved the character Chin-Kee in American Born Chinese. Kind of made me want to see the show — and figure out how his message could have gone so wrong. Find the whole interview here.

Photo: First Second Books
The covers of Gene Luen Yang’s two-part graphic novel Boxers & Saints.

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When I was little, I liked to look at the cartoons in my parents’ New Yorker, and the ads, too if the pictures were interesting.

I loved the old ads for the Philadelphia Bulletin, in which one skinny, anxious guy in black, like a modern day Cassandra, tried to get people’s attention about something going wrong. Cassandra’s fate was to see the future and never be believed. His was never to be heard.

Usually what he saw was something that had me worried, too, like a shark coming onto the beach. I really couldn’t understand why all those beachgoers were reading the paper instead of paying better attention. On some level, I sensed that the ad might not hit its mark: it might make people wary of reading the Bulletin and maybe getting eaten by a shark.

My husband remembers those ads, too, and when we were reminiscing about them in a restaurant Saturday, he did some Googling and turned up the artist’s name and the cartoon below.

The cartoonist was Richard Decker. Wikipedia writes about him here.

From his obit: “Mr. Decker worked nearly four decades as a contract cartoonist at the New Yorker, starting with the magazine in 1929 and becoming well-known on its pages for his detailed cartoons and lush washes. …

“Those cartoons Mr. Decker crafted that did not appear in the New Yorker often found their way into such magazines as the Saturday Evening Post, Look, Colliers and Playboy.

“And over the years, he also did illustrations for advertising campaigns. Among the best known was a 28-year Philadelphia Bulletin series, which ran until the 1960s, that centered on the slogan, ‘In Philadelphia, nearly everybody reads the Bulletin.’ A major feature of the campaign was ‘Mr. Nearly’ – the only man around not reading the paper.” Decker’s full obit is here.

The cartoon character Mr Nearly is no more. But I can’t help hoping that sometime before his demise, someone heard his warnings.

Photo from the University of Pennsylvania

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I read about this Plainville, Mass., cartoonist a while ago, but didn’t get my hands on a Providence Journal to see his new comic strip, Gil, until today. It’s sweet. I think regular readers of the funny pages are going to like following little Gil.

Taryn Plumb wrote about the glass-is-half-full antihero in the Boston Globe: “Gil is chubby, gap-toothed, not too bright, and his working-class parents are divorced.

“The central character of a new syndicated comic strip penned by Plainville cartoonist Norm Feuti, the 8-year-old bucks the idealized tradition of the comic pages, representing the norm of many 21st-century American families.

“ ‘I always wanted to do a family strip that was more down-to-earth,’ said 41-year-old Feuti, a full-time cartoonist.’’

Plumb notes that Feuti and “his older sister were raised in rural Rhode Island by his mother, who, much like [Gil’s mother], worked in a factory.”

“ ‘Immediately you love this kid,’ said Tom Racine, the San Diego-based host of the entertainment podcast Tall Tale Radio, for which he’s interviewed more than 250 syndicated and Web cartoonists and animators.”

He tells Plumb, “ ‘It’s one of those things where its time has come,’ … calling ‘Gil’ ‘truly one of the best things I’ve seen come along in years.’ ’’

Feuit’s blog is here. The Globe article is here.

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Asakiyume writes a blog I enjoy a lot, and this week she had an intriguing post on Jackie Ormes, generally considered the first female African American cartoonist. See examples of work by Ormes at Asakiyume’s blog, here.

According to wikipedia, Ormes (1911 to 1985), “started in journalism as a proofreader for the Pittsburgh Courier, a weekly African American newspaper that came out every Saturday. Her 1937-38 Courier comic strip, Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem, starring Torchy Brown, was a humorous depiction of a Mississippi teen who found fame and fortune singing and dancing in the Cotton Club.”

The strip waxed and waned as Ormes pursued her many career interests, bur she always returned to Torchy.

“In 1950, the Courier began an eight-page color comics insert, where Ormes re-invented her Torchy character in a new comic strip, Torchy in Heartbeats. This Torchy was a beautiful, independent woman who finds adventure while seeking true love. …  The strip is probably best known for its last episode in 1954, when Torchy and her doctor boyfriend confront racism and environmental pollution. Torchy presented an image of a black woman who, in contrast to the contemporary stereotypical media portrayals, was confident, intelligent, and brave.”

Being a cartoonist seems harder than writing a blog. You not only need to find daily topics that interest you enough to dwell on, but you have to encapsulate them in a piece of art. Asakiyume sometimes illustrates her posts, but art is one thing you won’t find me doing here. (Unless maybe a collage.)

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I am reading A Pigeon and a Boy, an Israeli novel by Meir Shalev. Although I’m really enjoying it so far, I don’t like to recommend a book until I’ve read through to the last page, so stay tuned.

In addition to getting wrapped up in the book’s interwoven stories from two time periods, I’m also learning quite a lot about pigeons.

In 1574, Leiden was under siege and ready to surrender when a pigeon brought news that help was near. “And during the campaign against Fort Souville at Verdun, who was it that succeeded in taking off above the clouds of poison gas … and transporting a message to the front? Only a French homing pigeon. …

“A Canadian homing pigeon named Sunbeam rescued fishermen whose boat had nearly capsized in the frozen waters off Newfoundland.”

Homing pigeons are not the pigeons you normally see (real name of city pigeons: Rock Doves). Though Rock Doves are an urban scourge, they are often beloved of small children. I’m told I was fascinated with chasing them as a toddler. And when Suzanne went to the big city at age 2, the sight of a pigeon caused her to break into this song from a favorite cartoon show:

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I must have spaced out in the ’80s because I had no idea that Suzanne loved watching a cartoon show called “Jem and the Holograms.” The TV was in the basement, but still …

What’s really interesting is that when Jem tapped her star earrings she activated special powers. I leave it to you whether that explains these earrings at Suzanne’s business, Luna & Stella.

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