I was kindly sent a copy of Reid Mitenbuler’s new book, Wild Minds: The Artists and Rivalries That Inspired the Golden Age of Animation, released by Grove Atlantic. So a big thank you to them for sending the copy, and generally for supporting a writer focused on our favorite subject matter: animation! The book is out in the world, and I wanted to share my thoughts about it.
A Refreshing Take
As someone who already reads a lot of animation history, I was pretty familiar with most of the names, characters, and milestones featured in this book. But it was the way the story unfolded that was a new experience–the anecdotes, the extra details and context that truly fleshed out the tale and gave it an exciting life. As each chapter ended I pondered what studio or artist we were going to spend time with next, and see where their ambitions and projects took them compared to their contemporaries. It was great seeing these people in relation to each other, often literally on the other side of the same city (New York City, specifically for a chunk of our story). It was invigorating reading these stories with the kind of punch one finds absent from more academic texts and papers on these subjects–not to say that Mitenbuler is lacking in academia–but it feels like he went out of his way to keep some of the nitty grittier details, the often unflattering qualities and circumstances that others might have edited out. He doesn’t hold back when it comes to some of these characters’ less PR-friendly behavior.
While some of the details are disappointing but unsurprising (especially for the times), it paints a clearer picture for us and I’m glad they weren’t censored out. It’s small details about these people I value, to know that flaws and all they were regular people once too, trying to get by, and some of them lucky enough to do something they legitimately liked (at least for a time). Their struggles then are largely ours now, and issues like discrimination and lack of representation in the industry remain ongoing. While a lot of existing writing about a lot of these people seem to glorify or deify them for the work they did, Mitenbuler paints a very real, human picture. These were indeed artists that did remarkable things, but they were also people largely figuring things out as they went, and dealing with the times they were in.
I think we are all prone to having rose-tinted glasses falling over our eyes and imagining an idealized version of XYZ time period and what it must have been like (usually with a caveat about medical advancements and, ya know, discrimination), and, I am not immune to it. And even here, despite everything I just said above–actually in some ways because of the wild west nature of the industry, dare I say–I found myself wanting to experience that time period of animation in the trenches as it were, trying to make it work (again, sans the sexism and whatnot).
While corporate oversight, demanding bottom lines, and bosses with no artistic experience are as old as the industry and as consistent then as they are now, it still felt like a pioneering time–literally as innovation and inventions were still shifting and changing the game for everyone. As much as there were huge demands for quotas and budgets, there was also a lot of ‘throw these people in a room with some money and see what clicks’ that ebbs and flows in this industry. We saw it with early Pixar and the Disney Renaissance, and it feels like we’re in a similar period now too with more creator-driven shows and films that actually feel creator-driven, with platforms like Netflix and recent tv shows from Disney.
That wish-you-were-there sentiment, despite the clear ups and downs that so many of our US industry founders experienced, is a testament to Mitenbuler’s storytelling. I say storytelling because while this is indeed a nonfiction book, again, it’s hard to explain how casual and accessible it was. It read like turn-paging fiction, eager to see what challenges were happening and how certain personalities were dealing with them. I’ve been bogged down by dense academic jargon before, but the strength here lies in that casualness, which I don’t say lightly or as a passive aggressive comment, but rather a sincere compliment and a testament to Mitenbuler’s instinct to make this story more approachable for everyone.
In that same vein, it is also a far more accessible book in terms of price point compared to some textbooks or access to academic databases or even seeking out any books about any one specific individual in here sans Disney).
I think the only bit of criticism I really have for the book that I still thoroughly enjoyed was the coverage of Walt Disney. There was just a lot of it! And it’s not like I don’t enjoy reading about him, especially in his early days, but there’s just so much about him already available. I totally understand that decision as he’s easily the most recognizable name here and the one that any casual reader would have already had the most exposure to who maybe hadn’t known about his earlier years.
And I get it’s not Mitenbuler’s fault that so many books and documentaries and whatnot have been made focused on Disney, and that he obviously played a big role in shaping the US industry. I would have been fine with him being more a mention here and there for a general temperature check of the industry and decade. But again, that’s a personal gripe about someone well-read on the guy. It still was nice to hear about him, and I absolutely enjoyed hearing about him in relation to other producers, specifically Max Fleischer. I knew once Disney was introduced in the book, he’d be a character for the rest of the book, which I can’t deny I wasn’t excitedly anticipating. So again, very aware that this is a contradictory “criticism.”
Pioneering an Art Form
Something else I really appreciated with how this story unfolded was the notion that animation’s creation and industrialization in the United States was not an endeavor done with children in mind. That’s such a core misconception about cartoons today. The evolution of that misconception is covered as organically as I imagine it happened: as animation professionals sought any means of surviving long enough to make the next picture. The book covers American animation from around 1911 to the 1960s, so we see first hand the evolution of the art, its commercialization and presence in cinemas, early merchandising booms, the ups and downs of studios trying to figure out if this was worth it, all leading up to the TV boom of the 60s and decline of theatrical shorts (and of course the rise of feature length animated films).
Today, we see a lot of these cartoon characters as tame, safe, and sanitized corporate logos, and this story is a reminder that many of them were a bit edgier and fringe at their initial creation. That the Fleischer’s were making and working with unexpected subject matter and collaborators, that many of them were laying down the tracks with the train already in motion. And that particular spirit is what I do find myself still envying and wishing to be a fly on the wall for.
Mitenbuler was very clear about some animators being in it for the art and innovation and some simply seeing new unclaimed land in a new industry/untapped market, and I can’t say I fault the latter party. We saw that in the last decade with ventures like VR and AR, new social media platforms like Clubhouse, environmentally disastrous things like NFTs, and virtual production becoming a bigger and bigger thing (especially due to/during the pandemic).
I think where my envy lies is in the bar being so… low? At the risk of sounding like a jackass, I’m not saying these people were without skills. Hell no. But the ability to remix and innovate on and invent and experiment with new techniques seems a lot more accessible versus today. We’re largely locked into software you couldn’t hope to modify without a deep, specific knowledge of programming. At the same time, the ability to create is so much more accessible today. And because of that, competition is extremely fierce and wide-reaching. But it’s obviously a good thing barriers (many of which were insidious) are falling away. You just don’t see stories anymore of people being hired with such underdeveloped skillsets to be trained on the job. Now, the interns are basically already at a professional level, and we deal with the modern paradox of needing two years of experience for an entry level job.
I guess part of that is that there wasn’t an artform yet, when the oldest of these people were getting started. They defined it, they standardized things, they set the tone(s). Winsor McCay was a hugely successful (like, actually wealthy) newspaper cartoonist–animation was literally his hobby on the side. And because of that freedom (due to his existing financial stability), he was able to dive so wholeheartedly into it and have such lofty and ambitious notions about this thing he himself was pioneering. He then of course subsequently influenced everyone around him, and those who would follow. McCay truly saw a future where animation was as highly regarded and as museum worthy as the paintings and sculptures at the Met or the Louvre. I’m sure he was slowly crushed (and some of that was indeed detailed in the book) when animated shorts stopped being run theatrically and slowly made their way to TVs only. I’m sure he was upset when the high production demands thrusted on those who did animation as a day job forced them to find new innovations and ways to cut corners and cheapen production costs (meanwhile McCay could endeavor with his work at his own pace). I’m sure had he lived long enough (he died in 1934), he’d have mourned animation’s pivot to tv and it’s shifted perception as a vehicle solely to drive sugary breakfast cereals into kids’ tummies.
The long and the short of it is I had to force myself to slow down to read this book because I didn’t want it to end. I wanted every chapter to be like fifty pages longer because I was so stupidly smitten with what was present on the page. I will probably now go out and get some of the biographical books written about specific people like Max Fleischer and Paul Terry. So definitely give this one a go. If you have no previous knowledge of these folks or this early industry history, this is a fantastic introduction, and if you’re familiar it’s a fun, welcomed new take.
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