In Wild Minds (Atlantic Monthly, Dec.), journalist Mitenbuler delves into the golden age of animation.
How did the idea for this book come about?
I got really interested in Fleischer Studios, because they were the number two to Walt Disney. Max Fleischer did all this innovative work but he was a little bit weirder, a little bit funkier, and he’s not the marquee name. At that point, there wasn’t a biography, although there is one now. But when there’s a topic that you’re interested in, and you don’t see the book you want to read, that’s when you know. So I dug more into the history of some of these old cartoons. There were lots of great books about them, but they tended to be a little more academic. I wanted a book you could read on an airplane or on the beach, one that really brings you into the story.
What made you decide to write it as a narrative history?
Reading other books of cultural history, I realized that the books that don’t work as well tend to focus on the actual art and on plot synopses. I always come away thinking I’d be better off just watching the actual art. So I knew from the beginning that this was going to be about the people who created cartoons, and how their work reflects their personalities and the times that they were working in.
What’s one way you found your history of the animation industry overlapping with history at large?
There’s a story I didn’t include in the book about Shamus Culhane, who was in charge of Woody Woodpecker cartoons for a while. Right after WWII ended, there was a moment where the U.S. was promoting Russian artists, because Russia had been our allies in the war. And Culhane was pushed to do that, so he integrated all this Russian art into the backgrounds of some of these old shorts. Then the Cold War began, and suddenly, this nation that has been our ally is now our enemy. And artists like Culhane, who had been pushed to involve Russian work in their own, were now being criticized during the Red Scare for doing exactly what they were told to do.
If you could spend time with any of these creators, who would you want to meet? Who would you avoid?
I tend to try to separate the art from the artist, but Pat Sullivan [whose studio made Felix the Cat] was a nasty guy and not that great of an artist— he was just taking the credit from someone who was. Who would I want to hang out with? I’d want to hang out at Termite Terrace with [Looney Tunes directors and writers] Michael Maltese, Ted Pierce, Chuck Jones. Bob Clampett? He seems like someone to hang out with.