Mel wrote the following article in 1999, at the request of his friend Noel Barrett, of "The Antiques Roadshow". It was intended for a Millennium Christmas event, sponsored by an Antiques website. The article posted on-line was, not only, edited, but rewritten. Here, for the first time, is Mel's original article, complete with all the photos, and in his own words.

Reflections in a Pie-Cut Eye

 An Exploration of the Art and Imagery
of Comic Character Toys, Part One

by Mel Birnkrant

Mel Birnkrant was offered a job at the Walt Disney Studios, when he was 17 years old, and a student at Mumford High School, in Detroit Michigan. He chose to attend college, instead, and went on to study art at The Cranbrook Academy, The University of Michigan (BA), Pratt Institute, and L'Academie Julienne in Paris. As Creative Director of "Colorforms" from 1970 to 1985, and an independent toy inventor, Mel has created hundreds of toys, including Colorform's "Outer Space Men", and Galoob's "Baby Face Dolls". He has collected Comic Character toys, for over forty years, and regards them, not as toys, but "Art".

The Invasion

As the Nineteenth Century drew to a close, human beings busied themselves about their various concerns, little suspecting that they were being scrutinized by other eyes, eyes that we would, one day, come to know as "Pie-Cut Eyes"! And, so, it came to pass that, our world was, soon, to be Invaded by a strange new life form: "Comic Characters"! It was a gentle invasion, emanating, not from Outer Space, but rather, from the space between the ears of man. And, it began modestly, with a few isolated sightings, such as The PALMER COX BROWNIES and THE YELLOW KID, appearing, primarily, on the printed page. But, other Comic Characters followed, and soon, this amicable invasion Exploded in a great burst of creative energy! Almost overnight, Comic Characters began to mutate and multiply. They filled the pages of our newspapers and populated the shelves of toy stores. We welcomed them into our homes and allowed our children to play with them. Before long, they succeeded in infiltrating every aspect of our society. Until, by the end of the Twentieth Century, Comic Characters had not only Transformed and "Conquered" the World, but managed to steal our hearts, as well. And, We Loved every minute of it!

A Language All Their Own

Comic Characters invented and "spoke" a unique "Visual Language" all their own. And in the early 1900s, our world learned to understand this new language, even as the Comic Characters, themselves, were in the process of creating it. By the term "Visual Language," I don't mean the language of the spoken or the written word, made "Visual". Although, Comic Characters did invent and introduce "The Talk Balloon," a unique way of allowing us to "see" what they are saying and even "read" their thoughts. Nor, am I referring to the new and revolutionary way that the first Comic Characters told a story: Through a series of Widows on a printed page, Windows, into which, we could look, one after another, to see the tale unfold.

I speak, instead, of a language, not of words and thoughts, but rather, of Forms and Shapes, a language of Abstractions and Stylization, Simplification and Exaggeration. It is a language that we "hear" with our eyes. And Mankind learned, embraced, and understood, this New Language, by peering through those Windows on a printed page to discover, enter, and behold, a Whole New World ...

The World of Comic Characters

To appreciate How dramatically "Different Looking" this New World must have appeared, a hundred years, or so, ago, one must, first, conjure up an image of our world, "the Real World". At the dawn of The Twentieth Century, ours was a world in which, "Reality" ruled! And, "Realism" was the model, upon which, all things "Visual" were based! "Fantasy", rarely, took "form", but when it did, the most Fantastic things were, inevitably, portrayed in Realistic terms. For Fantasy had not, yet, discovered a "Visual Language" of its own! Thus, elves, fairies, dragons and the like, when seen in books or paintings, were rendered in the most realistic way, as if to look like they were credibly, or incredibly, "Real".

Now step into The World of Comic Characters: "We're not in Kansas any more!" In this world, Realism has been Exaggerated and Distorted, or replaced, altogether, by "Abstraction". And, we meet Human Beings and Animals alike, whose body parts are pure abstraction. Hands might have, only, three fingers and a thumb, and every manner of abstract shape "will do", to represent an eye. We find eyes that are, no more than just a dot, or a dash, or a dot within a circle or an oval, and even blank white ovals, without a dot at all, [you all know who I mean]. There are eyes that "Pop" and eyes that are "Googley". And then, there are the most "Characteristic" eyes of all: "Pie Cut Eyes", black dots, with a white triangle cut out! Imagine a "pie" with one "slice" removed. The missing slice, effectively, represents the "Reflection" in a "Pie Cut Eye", bringing, what might, otherwise, be, a dull and lifeless dot, to Life!

And all the Abstractions, be they subtle, or extreme, that we encounter in the World of Comic Characters, do just that: They Bring the Characters To Life! And "come to life", they did! Right from the start, the American public befriended and embraced Comic Characters. And, every day, adults and children, alike, eagerly, peered through windows on a printed page, to follow the exploits and adventures of these abstract entities.......

All the Funny Folks

One can, perhaps, best appreciate the popularity of "The Funny Papers", and the impact that they had on our nation, in the early 1900s, by equating them to their present day counterpart: Television! Like CNN, today, Newspapers supplied the news, But, Sitcoms, Series and Soap Operas, were provided by the Funny Papers. And, "Comic Strips" like: ANDY GUMP, BUSTER BROWN, JIGGS AND MAGGIE, and HAPPY HOOLIGAN, were the, "Honeymooners", "I Love Lucy's", and "Seinfelds" of their day! To an adoring public, "Stars" like LITTLE NEMO, ORPHAN ANNIE, and KRAZY KAT, and, indeed, ALL The Funny Folks, even though, they were, only, abstract symbols on a printed page, appeared to be, not only, Alive, but Larger than Life!

And, so it was, that in the first quarter of what has been called: "The American Century", Comic Characters were "born" in the USA, and "Came to Life" in the pages of the "Funny Papers". Soon, Comic Characters of every nationality began appearing, all around the world. And, at the same time, very early on, something Wonderful occurred, something that would make children [and Collectors] happy, for generations to come: It was discovered that those windows on a printed page, through which we could enter the World of Comic Characters, and join them on their, daily, adventures, were, in fact, portals, through which the Comic Characters, themselves, could step, to leave their printed world, and join us in our own! And, more often than not, when Comic Characters entered The Real World, they did so in the form of TOYS.......

Comic Character Toys

In order to journey from the printed page, into the Three dimensional world, Comic Characters required a helping Hand. And, thus, the hands of countless, Unknown "Artists", mainly, working under the umbrella of the manufacturing industry, transformed the Comic Characters into toys, dolls, and related objects, fashioned in their Image.

And, in the process, the Original Images were Interpreted and Reinterpreted, Altered and Amplified. Sometimes, an image was constricted by the needs and limitations of a particular material or medium, be it wind-up toy or wooden doll. But, other times, the image was set free to soar, from the two dimensional confines of the printed page, to become a full fledged "Sculpture". And, always, these anonymous craftsmen, who might never have thought of themselves as "Artists", added their own intuition and vision to the finished "work". So, the objects and images they created, especially, when viewed through modern eyes, often, embody an "Intensity" and "Life", that Transcends the original subject matter, Elevating many of these Toys and Dolls and Related Objects, to the elusive Realms of "ART"!

Horsing Around

Lets stop here, a minute, in "1926", to witness this Phenomenon, first hand. We begin By looking through a window in the "Sunday Funnies" to see a typical view of BARNEY GOOGLE "horsing around" with his faithful nag, SPARK PLUG, as drawn by their creator, Billy De Beck. The draftsmanship is excellent, but highly illustrative. The caption reads: "Zis will be one Grand Work of Art". [Fig. A]

Now let's see what happens to these Characters in another artist's hands. Here is a panel from the incredible 1926 book "All The Funny Folks", illustrated by Louis Biedermann. This amazing artist manages to incorporate all the popular Comic Characters, of the day, between two hard covers, rendering them all, in a style, faithful to the originals. Yet, at the same time, he transforms and unifies them, by imparting his own "touch", the Touch of a Painter. Now, the level has been raised. We see SPARK PLUG in mid-race as BARNEY says the Magic Word, that will spur him on to win! Here is a painterly, "POP ART" image, 50 years ahead of its time, as the word, "GLUE", bursts in the air! De Beck would never have done this! [Fig. B]

Next, let's look, anew, at a familiar Wind-up toy. In this elegant object, BARNEY GOOGLE and SPARKPLUG have been transformed into an Exquisite sculpture, that, also, happens to wind up. Their forms have become more Simplified and Boldly Geometric. Was this due to the keen vision of the artist who designed the toy, or merely the restrictions, that the "Wind-up" medium imposed? It matters, Not! For, either way, the results are no less Great! When I, first, saw this toy, some 35 years ago, it knocked me off my feet. To see what I saw then, and still do, now, Look at this Mini-Monument and visualize it twelve feet tall! [Fig. C]  

The objects we examine next, provide a stunning contrast, to the stately formality of the tin toy above. The artist who sculpted these rare, and rather large, Store Display figures of BARNEY and SPARK PLUG, has taken a completely different, more Naturalistic, approach. Here we, still, see SPARK PLUG'S simple shape, consisting of an almost rectangular blanket from which, only, a straight neck and cylindrical head emerge, with the whole resting on four half balls, representing feet. But the sculptor has brought the figure to life, by twisting his neck, turning his head, and subtly implying, through voluptuous bulges and realistic wrinkles, that there is a body beneath that blanket, shifting and straining to bust out. And, we sense that SPARK PLUG is not only alive, but deep in thought, as he casts a, very, wary eye on BARNEY! [Fig. D

By contrast, this sophisticated perfume bottle is a Masterpiece of Stylization and Abstract Design. It has pushed the Image of BARNEY and SPARKY to the outer limits of Recognition, and teeters on the brink of Nonobjective Art. Yet the image holds! And, it remains the familiar friends we met in the Funny Papers. But, now, they have been transformed, by the helping hand of an unknown artist, to become an Elegant Sculpture, First, and a Comic Character, Secondarily! Is it not, hard to believe, that this Refined and Stylish Object D' Art, was created three-quarters of a century ago? [Fig. E]

Last of all, here is a toy, so rare, I never dared, hope, to see it in my lifetime. It is "The BARNEY GOOGLE and SPARK PLUG Gallop Toy". Manufactured by "Steiff" in 1926. Here the familiar Images are played with Irreverently. SPARKY has shrunk in size, to become, almost, a shaggy "Little Doggie", while BARNEY towers above him, wielding a rather menacing and furry club, and urging him to "Get Along". It might be, that the styling, here, was dictated, as much, by the Steiff medium, as by the artist's whim. But, the end result, is not only, quite, Surreal, but, also, thanks to an interesting combination of shapes and materials, quite, Beautiful, as well. [Fig. F]

Image Is Everything

As the "Gallop Toy" is pulled along, a clever mechanism in the base causes BARNEY and SPARKY to move back and forth. But, that contributes little, to what makes this, or, indeed, any Comic Character related toy, Interesting and Collectible! For in the World of Comic Toys and Related Objects, "IMAGE" is Everything! What a Comic Toy "does", and "how it does it", is of secondary importance. One might, even, state, that, in the World of Comic Character Toys, "The 'Play' is Not the Thing!". It's "How it Looks", that Counts! I realize that, many a "Toy" Collector, would dispute that opinion. But, as a Toy Designer, I hasten to point out, that, historically, in almost every early Comic Toy, the mechanism, play pattern, or method of construction, was already, in existence and common use,before the Image of a Comic Character was adapted to it!

A Trolley Named Toonerville

Having stated that, I will wander, once again, from my intended path, to pay homage to an Amazing Exception to that "rule", a toy that stands apart from all the Other Comic Wind-ups, by virtue of its Unique and Original Action! It is a fairly "common" toy, a "Basic" in the Comic Tin Toy repertoire, You can probably find one, right this minute, on E-Bay. Just call up: "Search" and type in: "TOONERVILLE TROLLEY"! But Do Not bid on It, Unless, It Works! ... The toy, itself, is relatively attractive, and faithful to the original two-dimensional image in Fontain Fox's Strip. Some, might, at first glance, say, "a little too faithful", for the SKIPPER here, like on the printed page, is Flat! He is no more than a small flat figure, cut out of lithographed tin, and standing at the front of the Trolley. His tiny arms, one resting on the drive crank, that protrudes from the front rail, while the other dangles by his side, are, just, flat cutouts, too.

Now, Wind the Key and "Let the Magic Begin!" ... The TOONERVILLE TROLLEY moves forward, wobbling, most amusingly, on its crooked axles and off-center wheels. Suddenly, it stalls, shutters, and comes to a full stop! And, now, in a moment of exquisite enchantment, the tiny SKIPPER comes to Life! He begins to struggle with the crank, turning it first one way, then, the other. The Trolley shakes. He pauses. But, it does not start. He tries again. And, although, he is only a small flat piece of tin, with no visible means of animation, he moves as if alive, and we feel his frustration, and root for him as he fumbles with that "Dang Blasted" crank. All at once, Success! The Trolley shakes again, and this time, hobbles forward, to enjoy smooth sailing for a few more feet, until it stalls once more. [Fig. G]

This Is Just One of the Many Comic Toys!
Have You Got Them All?

There are several kinds of "Comic Toy Collectors" and THE TOONERVILLE TROLLEY is sure to please them All! One group consists of "Toy Collectors" who collect Comic Characters, only, when and if, they happen to be Toys. Another group, consists of "Comic Character Collectors" who collect the Art and Imagery of Comic Characters in a variety of forms, including Toys, but, only, when and if, those toys happen to be Comic Characters. Art, Imagery, and Graphics, matter most to them. Then, there is, yet, another group who collect Comic Characters, because they recall them, fondly, from a distant time, when they, and All The Funny Folks, as well, were young. Sadly, this group is growing smaller every day, dwindling and disappearing from the Earth, and with them, all memory of the Funny Papers, and the Toys, and Times, we've been discussing, up till now, is fading too!

But, now, lets get this trolley back on track! We halted in our journey to discuss the Funny Papers and some of the Toys and objects they inspired. And, it would seem, we did so, at their moment of Greatest Glory, For, by 1926 the Funny Papers, were already beginning to fade. Their reign as the "King [Features] of All Media", was coming to a close. Mainly, because A Brand New Window, was opening, a Window, Bigger and Brighter, than any, the world had ever seen before! And when the Comic Characters stepped through it, the Art and Imagery Of Comic Characters, took a Giant Leap forward! As, overnight, a multitude of new Characters were created, and sprang to Life....

Upon The Silver Screen 

Continue to Part II of
Reflections in a Pie-Cut Eye

Note, on BUSTER BROWN Rolly Dolly:  Schoenhut Collectors, Beware! Ten years ago an individual, without disclosing his intentions, induced me to give him a Polaroid photo of this rare toy. He then, used it to create a Fake "BUSTER BROWN Rolly Dolly", incorporating a "real" Schoenhut bulldog in what is otherwise a total "Fabrication". Fortunately the photo was blurry and the craftsmanship mediocre, so the resulting forgery is easy to detect. Nevertheless, this has not deterred the forger from publishing photos of this bogus toy in recent magazines and price guides, describing it as "Rare" and thus implying it is "Real".

Favorite Links to Mel's Dolls & Toy Inventions:

Mel's Vintage Comic Character Collection

How Baby Face was Born

Mel Birnkrant's Photo Album of Dolls
Baby Face, Oodles, Cuddles, Magic Diaper Babies and Oh Baby!

More Toy Inventions by Mel
Animax, Wild Things, Puppies, Doggies, Tugger and Fuzzy Buzzies!! 

PrillyCharmin's Dolls

Article and photographs � Mel Birnkrant.
Some of the toys � the Walt Disney Company