We must resist despair.
The news broke this morning (Friday, May 26, 2017) that Denis Johnson, Poet, Novelist, and Short Story Writer, passed away on Wednesday, 5/24/17. I am beyond heartbroken. I have much to write and share. It’s been a tough day. I will continue this memoriam. In the interim, this memory by Lawrence Wright in The New Yorker:
Denis Johnson, who died on Wednesday, at the age of sixty-seven, wept easily, without embarrassment. “I just do this a lot,” he told his students at a writing seminar in St. Petersburg, Russia, in July, 2000, where we were both teaching. The tears on this occasion came in response to a student’s question about how he chooses titles for his books. He was alarmingly candid about the demons that pursued him. Even while we were in Russia, he was looking for an Alcoholics Anonymous chapter. He was always on edge, treading a path that was strewn with temptation, addiction, and violence. Perhaps because we were in St. Petersburg when I first got to know him, Denis reminded me of Dostoyevsky, a writer who was willing to plumb the darkest corners of his own psyche in order to honestly report on the nature of humanity.
He lived in the woods in northern Idaho, at the top of the stovepipe, near the Canadian border. He had guns and books and a Corvette and an amused wife, Cindy, whom he clung to like a mast in a stormy sea. I think he kept himself out of society because he was too appealing. He captivated people with his humor and brilliance, but adulation was another form of intoxication that he fiercely avoided.
Denis said that he never read his reviews, although he was one of America’s most acclaimed writers. While we were in Russia, his novel “The Name of the World” got a front-page review in the Times Book Review, by Robert Stone. When Denis’s editor called to give him the news, he told me, “I had to read my Bible to calm down.” And that was a good review. He said he stopped reading reviews when his friends began calling him at six in the morning, warning him not to read an indifferent notice in the Times. Each of his friends quoted just enough of the review that Denis felt like he had read it anyway. “A bad review is like one of those worms in the Amazon that swims up your penis,” he told me. “If you read it, you can’t get it out, somehow.”
Denis had a voice that was both lyrical and brutal, which sometimes seemed at odds with his buoyant personality. When I confided that I was anxious about writing a novel, worrying that I didn’t know where it was headed, Denis said that that wasn’t a problem. “You get in your teacup and take your oar and strike off for Australia,” he said, “and if you wind up in Japan, you’re ecstatic.”
He occasionally taught at the Michener Center, at the University of Texas, in Austin. In 2012, at a reading, one of his former students asked a question. She said that he had given them three rules to write by but she couldn’t remember the third one. Denis recited them:
Write naked. That means to write what you would never say.
Write in blood. As if ink is so precious you can’t waste it.
Write in exile, as if you are never going to get home again, and you have to call back every detail.
This post is dedicated to my son, Jack. Draw, boy, draw.
It all starts with a pencil. Whether it’s cel, CGI, or VR, it all starts with a pencil, it all starts with an artist bent over a pad of paper giving lease to his/her dreams. At one point when I was young I seriously considered going to Japan and pursuing a career in animation. I would have either been a big success or an incredible flameout. Success: “He’s so tall! And he knows so much about anime!” Flameout: “Fucking gaijin (foreigner), he thinks he’s cool? Let’s kick his ass.”
Anyway, this post isn’t about me. It’s about my favorite animated characters. Let’s roll.
The Devil Chernabog from FANTASIA , 1941
Like I said: “With a pencil.”
THERE’S NO WAY YOU’RE GOING TO TOP THIS GUY. Throw Mickey Mouse, Speed Racer, and fucking Roger Rabbit at me—you’re not going to top this guy. The Night on Bald Mountain sequence of FANTASIA is arguably the greatest achievement in classic cel animation. It’s so beautiful and eerie and original.
TAARNA, from HEAVY METAL, 1981
EVERYBODY BITCHED THAT THE TAARNA STORYLINE WAS A POOR EXCUSE OF FEMINIST REVENGE AFTER AN HOUR OF “RAMPANT SEXISM” IN HEAVY METAL (1981). To which I draw a slow breath, and quietly say, “Fuck you.”
Taarna came out of nowhere. She was never in the magazine. The producers sequestered artist Howard Chaykin in a hotel room and he designed Taarna in three days. Taarna is loving and strong and defiant. I was 16. I fell in love with Taarna. What’s not to love?
Look, this is the official poster for HEAVY METAL. The studio came out swinging with her. Fearless and bold and sexy and riding (flying) into battle.
(Yes I know: there was an alternate poster featuring Richard Corben’s Den, but we don’t need to talk about that. The above image was the poster. It was everywhere. It was on the cover of the book that was released to accompany the film, it’s on the cover of the DVD. That’s the poster, baby.)
Taarna’s character was rotoscoped via filmed footage of a live action flesh and blood model. It added a sensuousness and vitality absent in so much animation.
It didn’t hurt that Taarna was captured and tied up in the course of her adventure. Yes I’m a pervert. Send me hate mail.
So here’s the big “infamous” bar scene when Taarna kicks ass. It’s great. Enjoy.
ALFON from “BE FOREVER YAMATO,” 1980
Jesus, It’s like I’m stuck in the early 80s! (But I am. It was when I really started studying animation. Anyway…)
Of all the wonderful characters SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO gave us (Kodai, Starsha, Okita), I really wish I had designed THIS guy. He just looks so. Freaking. Cool.
I know: Alfon was inserted as a replacement for Desslar (big frenemy) who was not part of this movie, but Alfon’s a real enemy, he’s a tragic figure, and he’s in love w/ Yuki (female lead in YAMATO) and he just looks SO FREAKING COOL.
They rotoscoped him, too. When he bends down over Yuki and brushes back her hair, it’s beautiful. BE FOREVER is a pretty bad movie in the YAMATO canon, but it has scattered bits of beauty.
I just wish I had designed this bastard. So cool.
BIGWIG! FROM WATERSHIP DOWN! (1978)
(Unfortunately the above sketches are not “Bigwig specific” but ideas for many characters in “Watership Down.” Still, I rest my case: It all starts with a pencil.)
Look, if you don’t like WATERSHIP DOWN and you don’t love Bigwig, then you’re not human. Go away. Move to Neptune. I’m not xenophobic but see that rocket over there? GO. Yes. Where I’m pointing. Climb inside and go away.
WATERSHIP DOWN is easily one of the most beautiful animated films ever made, both visually and sonically. It broke my heart when I discovered it as a teenager, and still moves me decades later (even if I don’t have a copy of it anymore.)
Bigwig was fearless and brave and a natural leader, but he knew enough to step aside for a better leader, and he fought to the death, man.
Call me a sentimental sap (which I am!) But WATERSHIP DOWN will always remain one of my favorite movies, and Bigwig will live forever. His heart has joined the thousands.
POPEYE THE SAILOR MAN (1930s, 40s, 50s)
Popeye was the most bizarre character ever animated when I was a child. His short films were just so crazy: surreal, violent, funny. It was like they came from Dimension X. Max Fleischer did a great job adapting a beloved and well known comic strip character.
From Wiki. Forgive me. (I just gave them money SO THEY OWE ME.)
Popeye the Sailor Man is a cartoon fictional character created by Elzie Crisler Segar. The character first appeared in the daily King Features comic strip, Thimble Theatre, on January 17, 1929, and Popeye became the strip’s title in later years; Popeye has also appeared in theatrical and television animated cartoons.
Segar’s Thimble Theatre strip was in its 10th year when Popeye made his debut, but the one-eyed sailor quickly became the main focus of the strip, and Thimble Theatre became one of King Features’ most popular properties during the 1930s. After Segar’s death in 1938, Thimble Theatre was continued by several writers and artists, most notably Segar’s assistant Bud Sagendorf. The strip continues to appear in first-run installments in its Sunday edition, written and drawn by Hy Eisman. The daily strips are reprints of old Sagendorf stories.
In 1933, Max Fleischer adapted the Thimble Theatre characters into a series of Popeye the Sailor theatrical cartoon shorts for Paramount Pictures. These cartoons proved to be among the most popular of the 1930s, and Fleischer—and later Paramount’s own Famous Studios—continued production through 1957…
What killed me when I was a kid were the voices, the voice actors. They were so subtle and insidious and weird. After just watching the (most famous) short below, I wonder still, “How’d they pull this shit off?”
Watch the clip. It’s unfortunately semi lo res, but it’s still so good. It’s so weird and funny.
TINKERBELL from PETER PAN (1953)
OK, call me a [redacted], but I love Tinkerbell. She’s resourceful and imaginative and a loyal ally to Peter Pan even when she feels jealous re Peter’s affections for dunderhead Wendy. She’s cute and sexy without being overtly sexual. And in a curious character trait, she never speaks, like Taarna (see above.)
Sidenote: Julia Roberts was so dreadful as Tink in the mega-aweful live action version of Peter Pan, HOOK. Yes, I’m speaking to you, Mr Spielberg. And yes, Ms Roberts was very fetching in her short dress and bare feet and short pixie hair and big smile—but she talked. She was not Tink. Not by several light years.
I think my favorite moment with Tink is when she’s on a mission for Peter and she bumps her head, then shakes herself, not self conscious, just carrying on.
SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO (1974-Now)
OKAY, THIS IS A STRETCH, BUT BEAR WITH ME. Obviously, Yamato is not a “character.” It doesn’t have snappy dialogue, it doesn’t have mood swings, it doesn’t have a love interest.
But while Yamato is not a character, it is an ENTITY.
When Yamato was brought to America to be reinvented as “Star Blazers,” the Americans were kind of lost. “They made THE SHIP the hero!” they wailed. “What do we do?!”
To which I respond, “Yeah, that’s the point. The ship is the hero.” Yamato is a thing. But it’s still the hero.
Let me quickly interject that Yamato would have been dead on arrival without compelling human characters and a great storyline. And it is a great story. It’s a damn good story. I’m so jealous and dazzled by it after all these years. If whenever interviewed (ha!) and asked what story I wished I’d written, my answer would be “The Ballad of the Sad Cafe” by Carson McCullers. But man oh man, I wish I’d come up with something like Yamato. Really. It’s so potent, even primal. Yes, it is a militaristic dream fantasy of the Japanese for World War II in outer space. But it does more than that. Much more. Space Battleship Yamato will always retain its noble soul.
One last note. There is a splinter of a moment when we get a hint that Yamato is sentient. It’s in FINAL YAMATO (1983) and the crew has lost a devastating battle (in the first 15 minutes of the film) and the crew’s completely wiped out, and Yamato wakes itself up and flies back to Earth. It was spooky and weird and never really explained. I liked it. A lot.
BUGS AND DAFFY
It starts with a pencil, my friends. And Bugs is working on an old school Animation Table. Those animators SLAVED over this shit.
I really can’t imagine a funnier and charming duo than Bugs and Daffy. Some film critic once said, “We all want to be Bugs Bunny, but alas, we’re more like Daffy Duck.” And it’s true. Bugs is like a superhero, entangled in impossible situations but always emerging triumphant, whereas Daffy takes on impossible odds (because of his ego) and ends up defeated. It’s a drag, because I think Daffy is funnier than Bugs. He always loses. I don’t like to see a character lose. My heart goes out to him.
An ancient Warner Bros animator once said in an interview, “We didn’t make these cartoons for kids. We didn’t make them for adults. We made them for US.”
Which is the right attitude. And it shows. It really does.
The violence in these toons border on the psychotic. Bricks, bombs, bazookas— it’s all fair play. And that’s why I loved them as a child. It was the imagination of a little boy unleashed. The fucking ROADRUNNER toons? Holy shit. I just can’t wait for somebody to ban them forever. No, really. Explosives, avalanches, incineration—you do not see this stuff in 21st Century animation for children.
KIMBA (Original, 1965)
I really would have been way out of line if I didn’t include Osamu Tezuka. It was a toss up between MIGHTY ATOM (Astro Boy in America) and Jungle Emperor (Kimba in America) but I went with KIMBA. As a very little boy, I enjoyed Astro Boy. But Kimba broke my little heart into sixty thousand pieces. It was so noble, so pacifistic, so forward-thinking. And it was so soul-crushingly sad. It was a vision of a world without malice. Yes we live on a planet stuffed with malice and hatred and greed, but Kimba as a hero saw beyond that. He argued compassion.
Plus, it had music composed by Isao Tomita.
Quick sidenote: I know this is common knowledge, but I still want to talk about it. When Disney released the THE LION KING (yes great movie) in the early 90s, Japan went nuts. Because THE LION KING rips off JUNGLE EMPEROR (Kimba) FUCKING BLIND. JUNGLE EMPEROR was completely raped. Scene by scene, character by character, story element by story element. Even the fucking title! Jungle Emperor = Lion King, for fuck’s sake! When the film was released, 5,000 manga and anime artists in Japan signed a petition in protest, demanding that Disney at least acknowledge Osamu Tezuka as an “inspiration.”
What did Disney do?
Fucking nothing. Disney wouldn’t even change the end credits. Even Harlan Ellison managed to insert his dirty foot into the end credits of TERMINATOR, which I still think is wrong. Want to get punched by James Cameron? Just say the name, “Harlan Ellison.”
Above: adult Kimba
I almost dropped Kimba from this list, even though he really is one of my favorite animated characters. It’s just that the history of Kimba is so sad: It was Japan’s first TV anime in color (1965), it was so compassionate and noble and it had such beautiful music, then only to see it shamelessly plundered by Disney decades later without even the grace of an acknowledgement: Disney should have said, “Yes, we ripped you off, Osamu Tezuka.” How hard would that have been?
AND THUS IN VENGEANCE WE GIVE YOU
SPACE PIRATE CAPTAIN HARLOCK (1978)
THERE’S A BIT OF A BACKSTORY we need to go through before we can properly explore Harlock.
Harlock was originally intended to be a supporting character in Yamato (1974), see above. But when Yamato initially aired on Japanese TV, it bombed. It was sucking air. Its network cut the commitment from 52 episodes to 26 episodes—and everybody in the Yamato studio fucking flipped out. “HOW ARE WE SUPPOSED TO TELL THIS STORY IN ONLY 26 EPISODES?” And consequently Harlock never showed up. [Sidenote: I think the first Yamato storyline works perfectly well w/ only 26 episodes.] Anyway…
The Art Director, manga artist Leiji Matsumoto, who did SO much of the heavy lifting on Yamato, knew Harlock was a character worth keeping.
SO. When Star Wars was released in 1977, the world went balls-out nuts for space opera, and when the first Yamato series was compiled as a feature film, Japan found a new religion, and its name was Ya-Ma-To. I do not exaggerate. It was a frenzy. And suddenly Leiji Matsumoto was the most wanted (and hardest working) man in anime.
Matsumoto created and worked on so many TV shows and movies in the late 70s and early 80s I don’t know how the man didn’t have a nervous breakdown.
HARLOCK is easily my favorite Matsumoto character. He’s a tortured soul, and his story is not a happy one.
He is not immortal, but he is eternal. There is a difference. And it is not a fun ride.
IT WAS A RECENT RE-WATCH OF DISNEY’S Lilo and Stitch that inspired me to create this post. Stitch is one of the craziest and freakiest animated characters of all time. He’s a total rebel. He just doesn’t give a shit. He literally eats the scenery. He never gives up. And it’s such a brilliant and original design, totally alien and cute at the same time.
Some good Stitch moments, but please note: Stitch rarely speaks English. He usually goes ZAK BAK MA DAMA ZAK.
Lilo and Stitch is really a touching story: it’s about a broken family and homelessness and finding one’s place in the world… and it’s also about a crazy fucking mutant creation ripping everything apart. It’s really one of my favorites, and the first film is gorgeously animated.
Yeah, I ragged on Disney quite a bit in this post, but cel animation would have been nowhere without what Disney accomplished in the 1930s-40s. They did shit that was frankly unimaginable. So, bowing my head to Uncle Walt, we leave you with…
THE EVOLUTION OF DISNEY ANIMATION
Love you, Jack. Draw, boy, draw.
Model: Dolly / Photography: Restrained Elegance
YES, it’s ink. And I am very very pleased. I really wanted to be included in this anthology, and I am so grateful to Rose Caraway and all her hard work.
Kindle, audio, and paperback available HERE.