Not Just Kid Stuff

Last August, a graphic adaptation of the 9/11 Commission Report was published, and the media did what they always do when they notice cartoon artists taking on serious themes. They freaked. “Yes, that’s right, a comic about the attacks is set for publication,” gasped Bravetta Hassell of the Washington Post. “Is the most defining moment of a generation in danger of becoming just another franchise with a Happy Meal tie-in on the horizon?” fretted Vaughn Ververs, editor of CBS News’ Public Eye blog. Wringing her hands, Chicago Tribune cultural critic Julia Keller wrote, “I don’t know if it’s a good or a bad idea to treat serious subjects in terms of comic book art, if such works represent an advance or a retreat for civilization.” Her story was headlined “Are you ready for this?”—as if we, as a culture, could withstand 9/11 itself but might go to pieces if we happened to experience drawings of it.

All that keening was the product of a common but false assumption: that comic art is inherently a children’s medium. There’s ample proof to the contrary, of course—the works of Art Spiegelman, Marjane Satrapi, and Alan Moore, to pick just three relatively recent examples. But in a capitalist consumer society, those with the money usually get to define the terms under which a culture operates, and Spiegelman’s Maus has never stood a chance against the Mouse. Walt Disney, more than any one person, developed the grammar of modern cartoon art, and thanks to his studio, he remains the chief influence on the way the average citizen consumes and understands this medium. Critics have given him hell for that: In his 1968 book, The Disney Version, Richard Schickel eviscerated his subject for turning his art into a kiddieland and dismissed the Disney oeuvre as “mostly a horror.”

And Schickel wasn’t alone; his assessment of Disney as a sort of Hitler of wholesomeness remains pervasive. But in his mammoth new biography of Disney, Neal Gabler makes a solid case for his subject as a middlebrow but mature artist, a not-just-for-kids artist, and, in his own way, an occasionally not-for-kids artist. Perhaps as important as his stance, Gabler assumes it without sounding like a company man. A rightfully acclaimed and observant writer on celebrity and film history, he scored unprecedented access to the Disney Archives to research the book, and while he’s not as aggressive as Schickel was, Gabler doesn’t pull his punches, either. In the closing chapters, Disney is a compromised man who’s quite distant from the aspiring animator struggling in Kansas City in the 1920s; his ambition never wavered, but what he was ambitious about changed radically. Heartened by the success of Disneyland in 1955, Disney had all but abandoned animation and plotted to expand his family-entertainment empire by purchasing land in Florida that would become Walt Disney World. By 1966, shortly before his death, his studio was dealing in cheap, unchallenging family fare like Pollyanna and That Darn Cat. The saddest scene in Gabler’s book describes how Disney would regularly call the Sherman Brothers into his office, demanding to hear the songwriting team perform “Feed the Birds,” their melancholy, elegiac tune from Mary Poppins. “Play it!” Disney would order, staring blankly out the window. The brothers would, and their boss wept every time.

So, what happened to the person who could spearhead a clever Depression-era allegory like Three Little Pigs, or pull off a technical triumph like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs? The cheery, safe Disney style resulted in part from the economic realities with which its creator was forced to reckon. During World War II, Disney dropped much of what he was working on to make government-subsidized films. Plus, a unionization effort among the studio’s animators put a crimp in his obsessively improving ways. These occurrences, thoroughly and compellingly detailed in a chapter titled “Two Wars,” kneecapped aesthetics as a prime consideration at the studio. By the mid-50s, Disney was more concerned with his revolutionary new theme park, and the kiddie TV show explicitly designed to promote it, than with promoting cartooning as a complicated art. Once both those projects became hits, the quality of Disney’s films was even less of an issue.

Before all that, Disney had made legitimate claims to art that few thought to dismiss as kid stuff. He was proud of his 1946 collaboration with Salvador Dali on Destino, a short that was finished, posthumously, in 2003. And though critics split on his 1940 film, Fantasia, they never argued about whether Disney’s ambitious pairing of animation with classical music was fit for adult consumption. Nor did they question whether a film so abstracted was fit for the cartoon form. Indeed, when Pinocchio and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs were released, arguments often revolved around whether they were fit for children. (When Disney’s four-year-old daughter, Diane, attended a screening of Snow White, she watched it through her fingers and was eventually escorted out when she started bawling.) Disney’s main flaw prior to his post-World War II decline wasn’t his hokeyness but his intense perfectionism—his efforts to keep “plussing” (i.e., improving) his animations and his continuous, abject fear of getting stale. Admitting he overreached with Fantasia, Disney said, a decade later: “Every time I’ve made a mistake is when I went in a direction where I didn’t feel the thing actually. And I did try to be a little smarty-pants.”

In the late 30s, being a smarty-pants was part of the Disney gospel; it wasn’t until after the war that Disney came to embody middle-class values for postwar America. Still, he was never comfortable with his assigned role as a purveyor of cuteness. In real life, Disney didn’t much resemble Uncle Walt; if anything, he was antisocial and often neglected his wife and daughters to concentrate on the studio. Disney was a bona fide artist for a time, Gabler argues, citing Snow White, Steamboat Willie, and Three Little Pigs as works of art. That contention runs counter to the claims of many of Gabler’s colleagues (the eminent critic David Thomson calls Snow White “pretty pablum”), but even Disney’s harshest critical enemies have laid down their arms when it comes to the technical achievements that those first features represented. More than anything, those movies stand as arguments that animation is a medium where anything is possible, and in Fantasia and abstracted shorts like The Skeleton Dance, Disney endeavored to prove it. “This is not the cartoon medium,” he told a colleague during the making of Fantasia. “It should not be limited to cartoons. We have worlds to conquer here.” It was a great mission statement at the time, and it’s a shame that Disney’s own work ultimately contradicted it; the world he wound up conquering was a small one after all.

Disney would probably blanch at much of what’s contained in An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, & True Stories, a collection of contemporary North American comic art edited by cartoonist Ivan Brunetti. Robert Crumb’s fetishes, Art Spiegelman’s neuroses, and Chris Ware’s youthful insecurities are all on display in the book, and those themes in many ways directly oppose Disney’s polite, well-scrubbed, heavily controlled postwar works. Sure, Mickey Mouse could be a pervy prankster in his early days; in Steamboat Willie, he uses a winch to lift Minnie up by her undies, swings a screaming cat by its tail, and turns a duck into an ad hoc hurdy-gurdy. But his creator would probably have little patience for Tony Millionaire’s foul-mouthed strip, “Maakies,” or the hooker and street bum in the samples from Archer Prewitt’s “Sof’ Boy,” both of which are featured in Brunetti’s book.

That said, the editor makes it clear, through his selections, that both Chris Ware and Disney have shared roots in straightforward gag writing. The opening pages of the collection are dedicated to three- or four-panel strips, some of which are the offbeat likes of “Underworld” and “Zippy the Pinhead.” But Brunetti also dedicates space to works inspired by Charles M. Schulz’s “Peanuts.” For most people, the star of “Peanuts” is Snoopy, but for cartoonists, Charlie Brown is the dominating figure—a roly-poly underdog whose intelligence, awkwardness, and self-loathing make him sort of the ur-character for many of the graphic novels published in recent years. (Reading Brunetti’s book, it’s hard not to assume that a lot of its cartoonists suffered from a Charlie Brown-like despair during their childhoods; Chris Ware, for one, cops to that in his tribute.)

The anthology also includes an essay by Schulz in which he details the amount of rigor required to break into the cartooning business. “You must be in constant search for the characters and ideas that will eventually lead you to your best areas of work,” he writes. Like Disney, who launched drawing classes at the studio to get his animators up to his standards during the making of Snow White, Schulz was fighting against a presumption that cartooning was a naïve, anyone-can-do-it art form, or a repository of kiddie lit. Folks aghast at the notion of a 9/11 comic might make something not just of Maus (which is excerpted in the anthology) but also of Jaime Hernandez’s intimate and mystical redemption tale, “Flies on the Ceiling”; David Collier’s intricate, well-researched “The Ethel Catherwood Story”; or John Hankiewicz’s reminiscence, “A Paragraph by Saul Bellow (1915-2005).”

Ultimately, Brunetti’s book isn’t arguing for comics’ not-just-for-kids status so much as displaying the form’s many possibilities. (After all, only daily newspapers still play up the “Comics aren’t for kids anymore!” angle.) Cartooning, like any medium, is an empty vessel that’s free to be manipulated and used in any number of ways. Either animated or on paper, it easily lends itself to the gag. And if it fails to become more than that, the shortcoming isn’t with the medium but its makers—Uncle Walt, unfortunately, chief among them.