SDCC 2013: The Gene Dietch, Walt Kelly, And Jack Kirby Tributes

San Diego Comic-Con is so vast and intense that one needs to make a very careful game plan: panels, programs, signings, and events are scheduled every instant, and there are tough choices to be made each step of the way if you’re going to get to see half of what you’d like to.  And while there’s lots of complaining every year about the lack of actual comic content in a convention named for comics, that’s simply absurd; there’s so much of EVERYTHING going on that you just need to make sure you’re in the right room at the right time.  I spent most of the four days of Comic-Con attending comic-centric panels and learning more about the history of this artform.

Spotlight On Gene Deitch

Gene Deitch may not be one of the best-known names in the world of comic art, but he’s certainly one of the most influential: his cartoons for Record Changer magazine in the 40s and 50s gave modern jazz music a sleek and stylish visual identity; his comic strips Nudnik and Terr’ble Thompson spawned legions of fans and imitators; his work for UPA, Terrytoons, and Weston Woods has influenced generations of animators; he created Tom Terrific (one of the earliest animated series to be regularly broadcast on US television), and he won an Academy Award in 1962 (for ’Munro’, an animated short based on a Jules Feiffer comic).

In short, he’s done it all, and done it better than pretty much anybody, and his spotlight panel (co-hosted by esteemed historians Leonard Maltin and Jerry Beck) was a priceless opportunity to hear a true legend talk about his career with wit and verve.  The program began with some brief introductions, and then paused while an SDCC organizer stepped onstage to present Mr. Dietch with one of the convention’s special Inkpot Award for excellence in animation, to the honoree’s great delight (“I have other awards, but I don’t have one in this shape – look at this!”).  The conversation then began in earnest, with Beck and Maltin firing off questions and the guest of honor answering in rapid (and razor-sharp) fashion.

A particularly striking tidbit was Dietch’s recollection of bringing in Boris Karloff to do some voice work for cartoons (“It was so strange having him in the studio…he was a big huge guy [stands to emphasize].  He kinda looked like a monster, but with a gentle face”).  Other highlights included his memories of working at UPA (“So many great artists were there, because we wanted to prove that all different kinds of great art could be animated!”), his recounting of the storytelling advice given to him by hits UPA mentor, John Hubley (“Know what it’s about!  If you don’t know what it’s about, then don’t bother!”), and a back and forth between all three panelists about the creative process of making the Tom Terrific cartoons:

Beck: “The first time I met you I was talking about how the character was transparent, and how brilliant that was, and I asked you about it…”

Dietch: “It’s because we didn’t have enough money to do painting!  We had very restrictive budgets and time…every single film made is a matter of compromise.”

Maltin: “But what you always HAVE had is the great ideas!”

The discussion wrapped up with a return to the topic of “passing the torch”: Dietch learned his craft from John and Faith Hubley at UPA.  When he left UPA to take charge of the Terrytoons studio, he mentored an animator named Ralph Bakshi.  Bakshi would go on to create some of the most acclaimed animated features of the 1970s, and in doing so, hired and worked alongside a young man named John Kricfalusi.  Kricfalusi would then go on to work on Mighty Mouse cartoons, create Ren & Stimpy, form Spumco studios, and in turn, provide essential inspiration and guidance for many of today’s top animators.  It’s an amazing story, a direct lineage of animation innovation, creators of a medium passing knowledge directly down through generations, laying the groundwork for the next group of boundary-breaking rebels.  Or, as Dietch described it with jocular nonchalance: “we all go through the cycle of starting out avant-garde, and ending up regular”.

A Celebration Of Walt Kelly’s 100th Birthday

This panel was devoted to the life and work of Walt Kelly, Disney animation artist, comic artist, poet, and creator of Pogo Possum.  Moderator Mark Evanier guided a group of diverse and well-suited group of panelists: comic historian R.C. Harvey, historian and journalist Maggie Thompson, animation/comic writer Paul Dini, and cartoonist/comic creator Jeff Smith.  They offered a wide range of perspectives, held forth on all aspects of Kelly’s long and storied career, and discussed how their own work had been influenced by Pogo and Kelly’s other creations.

Smith talked of Kelly’s drawing skill, and how meticulous his illustrations were (“When he drew a knot, it made sense and was tied correctly!”).  Dini discussed Kelly’s impeccable comedic timing, and the lessons that can be learned from studying Pogo strips.  Harvey gave his insight on what made Kelly’s work stand out in a sea of “funny animal” cartoonists (“his animals had bare feet!”).  And Thompson told a story illustrating the man’s legendary kindness: when she was a child, her parents corresponded with Kelly, and when she had rheumatic fever in 1947, he went to Western Publishing, got a copy of every children’s book published that month, then mailed the box to her, so she had plenty to read while she was stuck in bed.

It was a heartwarming and laughter-filled panel, and as it wound down, Evanier expressed his hope that it can become an annual fixture at SDCC – and judging from the number of people attending, and the spontaneous applause that erupted throughout the proceedings, there’s plenty of demand for a repeat performance next year.

Jack Kirby Tribute Panel

SDCC’s annual Jack Kirby Tribute is a testament to one man’s imagination, and the impact he had on an entire art form.  It’s not for nothing that Kirby is referred to as the ’King Of Comics’, as he is probably the single most important figure in the medium’s history: co-creating Captain America in the 1940s, co-creating the entire Marvel Universe in the 60s, expanding the DC Universe in the 1970s, pioneering independent comics in the 1980s, and developing new visual storytelling techniques throughout his career.Mark Evanier moderated a stellar group (Neil Gaiman, Tony Isabella, and Kirby family attorney Paul S. Levine) at this Sunday morning panel, and from the moment the initial applause died down, the conversation was wide-ranging and engaging.  Evanier spoke of Kirby’s approach to his work (“Jack wasn’t competitive, but what he thought of as his job description wasn’t just to make comics…it was to create a dynasty each time he drew a comic”). Isabella discussed working on Captain America in the 70s, just before Kirby returned to take over the title (and having recently re-read Kirby’s entire run, offered some insightful comments on the characters, themes, and portrayals therein).  Gaiman and Isabella then began discussing their appreciation of ’Captain America’s Bicentennial Battles’, an oversized one-shot story that Kirby wrote and drew, sending the character through time to important moments in US history.

Gaiman also spoke on his enjoyment of last year’s Avengers movie, and how excited he was to see Kirby’s creations brought to life on the big screen: “It felt like Jack…if you’re going to have a secret base, of COURSE it’s going to be way up there…so people can land on it from every angle!”

The conversation also touched on Kirby’s portrayal of different races and cultures (Isabella offering that for his money, nobody has ever handled The Falcon’s character as well), creator’s rights, Kirby’s ability to use his own life as inspiration for stories and characters (Evanier: “the Galactus trilogy was inspired by much of Jack’s worry about a corporate takeover of Marvel”), and how much of his impact on the field of comics still goes unrecognized (Gaiman: “Kirby is too big…it’s like the way people in Times Square don’t notice they’re in America”).

It was a phenomenal conversation, and a worthy tribute to a man whose creativity has inspired generations of creators, who was the first professional to ever speak at SDCC, and who imagined, even then, that someday that tiny entity of a few hundred people in a hotel would grow to encompass an entire city.  (Evanier: “And we were just like, sure, Jack.  Okay.  But he was right!”)

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