My Work, Elsewhere

It’s been a long time since I’ve written here on anything like a regular basis–which means that it’s been a long time since I’ve reported on my doings, workwise. I think I forgot to mention that I joined the staff of TIME in 2012. I know I didn’t write about deciding to leave the staff of TIME in May of this year.

At the moment, I’m writing about technology for Technologizer–a site which I’m pretty sure will always be willing to have me, since I started it. But in less than three weeks, I’m starting a new job as technology editor for Fast Company, a magazine and website I’ve long admired. I’m pretty excited about it.

I also believe that I never formally mentioned that Scrappyland, which I started ten years ago and then let fester, is no longer festering. It’s now a blog, and while I don’t write there as much as I might in an ideal world, I’ve had lots and lots of things to say about Scrappy over the last couple of years, with more to come.


Jack Kirby Draws Jack Ruby

The May, 1967 issue of Esquire–this was during the period when it was edited by Harold Hayes and was probably the best magazine in the history of magazines–featured an article by Garry Wills and Ovid Demaris about Jack Ruby, the Dallas nightclub owner who killed Lee Harvey Oswald. That piece, published after Ruby’s death in January 1967, was complemented by something remarkable: “46 Hours and 36 Minutes in the Life of Jack Ruby,” a three-page comic strip beginning with Ruby learning of JFK’s assassination and ending with him shooting Oswald. The strip was written and drawn by Jack Kirby, inked by Chic Stone and annotated with references to the Warren Commission hearings.

Giving Kirby the assignment was a stroke of genius–despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that it was so atypical. There’s virtually no action–the shooting of Oswald takes place in the next-to-last panel–and even though Esquire‘s pages were roughly twice as large as those of a comic book, everything is broken into tiny, cramped panels, each with a caption, and mostly depicting a scene in its entirety.

Ruby looks like a dissipated, angry version of Kirby’s later creation, Goody Rickels. He’s a small man who thinks he’s big, and other than brooding over the president’s assassination and killing Lee Harvey Oswald, he spends most of the three pages doing things such as ordering cold cuts, placing advertising for his club, going for a swim, demonstrating something called a “Twistaboard,” and having a Coke.

If you’re reading the story in 2014 and are familiar with the comics Kirby was drawing for Marvel in 1967, his association with heroic fantasy somehow makes the details of the crime depicted in “46 Hours and 36 Minutes in the Life of Jack Ruby” even more shockingly banal, and therefore more powerful. But it must have been potent stuff in 1967, even if you didn’t know who Jack Kirby was and were not a reader of Fantastic Four.

Anyhow, here’s the strip. It’s available elsewhere on the web, but I didn’t know about it until I happened to buy the issue at an antique store. It should be famous. Maybe it is, and I somehow didn’t know.





The Noble Approach

What's Opera, Doc? art from The Noble Approach

First, an apology: It’s taken far too long for me to shower praise on The Noble Approach: Maurice Noble and the Zen of Animation Design, by my friend Tod Polson. It’s not just the best animation book of 2013; it’s among the most memorable ones on the subject, period.

Back when I hung out with Maurice — from the early 1990s until a few days before his death in 2001 — he frequently talked about the book which he was going to write. He did provide notes behind which Tod drew on, but they weren’t anywhere near enough to complete the book. So Tod drew on his own deep knowledge of Maurice’s approach, which he learned as one of the young “Noble Boys” who worked with Maurice at Chuck Jones Productions and elsewhere in the 1990s. He also interviewed others who Noble mentored, and quotes extensively from interviews with Maurice (including, I’m honored to say, the one I did). Essentially, he put together a jigsaw puzzle for which Maurice had only left a few pieces behind. And it works.

Maurice NobleSo this book isn’t exactly the same one which Maurice would have written if he’d completed it, but that’s O.K. It’s wonderful. And some of what’s good about it likely wouldn’t have been part of a 100-percent Noble version, such as the biographical section near the start, which takes us from his youth through his work at Disney, Warner, and elsewhere all the way to his final years as an √©minence grise.

The book is presented as advice to those who wish to create animation, but it’s equally satisfying if all you’re looking is insight into what made Noble’s collaborations with Chuck Jones so special. For animation fans, it’s not necessarily even all that clear what a layout artist does; this book explains what Maurice did, and how it involved so much more than drawing backgrounds. His work helped set the mood; it influenced the humor and led to specific gags; it was a custom job each time, tailored to the needs of each film.

This is the best in-depth insider look ever published at how the Warner shorts were made from the perspective of someone who was there — it’s a far better read than Chuck Jones’ own Chuck Amuck and Chuck Reducks. And even though the book isn’t actually by Maurice, it does a perfect job of telling us what he did, and why.

Maurice had so many interests, and could talk entertainingly about so many subjects, that I spent surprisingly little time with him talking about animated cartoons. So for all the instances in which the book brought back pleasant memories, it also taught me things about his work which I didn’t know. For example, I wasn’t aware that he sometimes began by writing about what he hoped to accomplish with his layouts. The Noble Approach includes some of his longhand notes, as well as vintage photographs and a profusion of choice artwork from Warner and Disney as well as lesser-known stuff like his work on industrial films.

The Noble Approach is not the last book that anyone will ever need to write about Maurice Noble and his art. It’s a how-to which aims to put Maurice’s philosophies and techniques on paper, not an appraisal of his work. So it doesn’t explain why the best cartoons which Jones and Noble worked on together — mostly in the mid-1950s — or why, later on, even before the Warner studio closed, their partnership didn’t always result in magic.

It seems obvious to me that their work benefited from the tension present when both Jones and Noble were deeply and intellectually emotionally invested in a project; later on, when Jones handed over so much responsibility to Noble that Maurice sometimes got a co-director credit, Maurice’s designs no longer served to support the needs of a strong director, which is what he always said he was trying to do all along. When the most striking thing about a cartoon is the design, rather than the characters and storytelling — as is true of many later Jones/Noble films — something’s wrong. (The Dot and the Line is one exception, in part because it really was a tale told through design.)

Anyhow, objectivity was never the goal of this particular book. Tod has pulled off a spectacular feat. Reading this book made me smile in exactly the same way I did when I spent time with Maurice.

What’s Opera Doc? art at the top from The Noble Approach. Photo of Maurice Noble by me, taken in 2000 after we had lunch together in LA’s Chinatown; I think that’s Maurice’s leftovers in the bag he’s clutching.)


It’s a Dean Martin Marshmallow World Christmas

I’m not sure if this is my favorite song of the season, but as my wife will tell you, I never tire of hearing it. And Dean Martin apparently never tired of singing it — with Frank, with Beverly Sills, with girls in Santa suits, in front of a group of young people, and often while smoking…


Two guys unknown to me channeling Dean and Frank:

And a somebody’s reconstruction of what it would have looked like if Darlene Love — whose version of the song remains definitive — had sung it on TV:


The Art of the Cartoon-Character QSL Card

I don’t know much about QSL cards, but I do know this: ham-radio operators have swapped them for many decades as a way of recording where their signals reach. The custom spread to CB radio, and cards with cartoony caricatures of the operators in question became popular. In some cases, the cards just used unauthorized versions of well-known characters. These are some of those cards. I believe they date from the 1970s.

Most of these were done by a person or organization known as Runnin Bare. I love ‘em — especially how they make everyone from Porky Pig to Blondie look kind of like a trucker.






















There seems to have been a long tradition of using famous characters on QSL cards — here, borrowed from an eBay auction, is a 1934 example.



The people of the 1980s, they were different from you and me. (I bought this photo at an antique store but have no idea what it depicts.)

Donkey Kong


Adam West, it turns out, isn’t as good a singer as Batman.


From the Nixon Agnew Committee’s Nixon Yearbook 1968.



Has any subject provided more inspiration for interpretive dance than…Batman?

(The dancer who’s in the center for much of this is the amazing, and wonderfully-named, Lada Edmund Jr.. I never heard of her until yesterday, but now I’m a big fan.)


At last, the hard-hitting documentary on the making of a Joey Heatherton Perfect Sleeper commercial which you always knew was out there somewhere.