Reflections
in a Pie-Cut Eye

Part II of  An Exploration of the Art and Imagery of Comic Character Toys

Upon the Silver Screen

Animated Comic Characters appeared in the "Movies" for the first time, in 1911,when Windsor McCay, led the way, by bringing LITTLE NEMO, from the Funny Papers to the Screen. But, I won't attempt to chronicle the history of the Animated Film. Instead, let's jump ahead to the early 1920s, when, hidden, behind the overbearing facade of "Pat Sullivan" [A drunken rapist, who took all the credit, And the profits], a humble man, named Otto Messmer, [A Towering Genius, who did all the work] created FELIX THE CAT. Messmer animated FELIX, almost, single handedly, in some 200 films. And, in the process, he advanced the "Visual Language" of Comic characters, by leaps and bounds!

FELIX THE CAT was "Messmerizing" right from the start. His Jet Black body, contrasted against lighter backgrounds, grabbed the eye, and held it captive, Thus, FELIX dominated and "stole" every scene! But, in the beginning, he was, also, complex and difficult to draw. His shapes were angular and "Art Deco"like, in style. So, Otto fixed it! He changed the Rectangles to Circles. And, in so doing, discovered the Secret "FORMula" that would "SHAPE" All Animation, from that time forward: CIRCLES! Circles, not only, made FELIX easier to draw, but, also proved to be the "key", that made it possible for drawings to be passed from one animator to another, and worked on by a multitude of hands, without any, noticeable, change in style. Thus, the Circle became the Basic Shape, on which, all Animation is Based. And, FELIX THE CAT, with his Circle eyes, and Circle nose, and Semi-Circle smile, upon his Circle head, Circle upon Circle, became the most Popular Comic Character, yet, to Frolic on the Silver Screen, or leap out, from it, into the World of Toys. Alas, in 1928, the "Talkies" arrived with a "BANG", and FELIX, Silently, stepped aside, to make way for the Bright New Star, who would, soon, Take His Place, in ...

The Circle of Life

MICKEY MOUSE is one of the Most Powerful and Amazing Images of All Time! Early MICKEY Is, Nothing More, than a Collection of CIRCLES, Not One Single Element of his Anatomy is "Realistic"! And, yet, this Exercise in PURE ABSTRACTION, "Speaks" to the Entire World, Crossing all Borders, Spanning all Age Groups, Communicating in the Silent, universal, "Visual Language" of Comic Characters, MICKEY "Shouts" Out "I'M ALIVE"! And Everyone, of Every Age, and Every Cultural background, "Hears" him, with their eyes, and "Gets the Message"! When Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks joined hands, in 1928, to create MICKEY MOUSE, surely, something Magic Happened, for, either by Skill, or Intuition, or Fate, or Accident, They Discovered The Abstract Symbol for "LIFE", itself! And, there is Not a New Born Infant on Earth, that will not respond to him, with squeals of delight?

When MICKEY MOUSE was born, Three Circles, One larger than the other two, proportioned like a quarter and two dimes, [early Disney animators used to, sometimes, actually, trace these coins], came together and formed a Symbol, recognized around the world, simple and almost Indestructible! Add another quarter for his tummy and two smaller circles for his hands, then join them all, with tubes for arms and legs and digits [four], and top him off with oval nose, and funny shoes, and tail, and last of all, those ever popular, Pie-Cut eyes, and, Behold: MICKEY MOUSE! Now, Make him Talk, and Dance, and Sing, upon the Silver Screen! And, put his Likeness on some, Fifty-Thousand things! Then Fashion Countless Toys and Dolls and Icons in his Image, and, Behold: His MAGIC KINGDOM, Here on Earth!

Throughout the 1930s, MICKEY Reigned Supreme! As, Image after Image poured forth, and, countless unknown Artists tried their hand, composing Variations on the Theme of MICKEY MOUSE. Some captured MICKEY"S image well, while others in missing it, made, even Better Art! Soon, Friends and Family appeared.You know their names, I need not list them here. For it was the, very, Flowering of the Golden Age, and all the Great Characters created then, like BETTY BOOP, POPEYE, and All the Rest, are with us still! So, I'll stop here, while Mickey is at the Pinnacle of his Success and Snow White is, along with World War II, about to Stun the world. This is "where I came in". Disney still had a few great films up his sleeve, Just enough to "hook" me, by the age of two or three, for life.

What are You, a Man or a Mouse?

By the time I was old enough to meet Mickey, He was already in decline, That indestructible image, that could "hold his own" in the hands countless unknown artists, had been destroyed by Disney himself! The Pie-Cut Eyes were gone, replaced by eyeballs that could look from side to side, and the Magic circle, that in earlier days, defined his head, had turned to mush, Cute chubby little cheeks, the kind that relatives love to squeeze, disfigured his, once, distinctive outline. And, his rotund derriere, formerly a circle the same size as his head, had slimmed down, to an ambiguous geometric shape, best defined as "svelte". Eventually, he donned long pants and a Hawaiian shirt, and bought a house in Levitt Town. Like the rest of America, Mickey Mouse moved to the Suburbs! And the PERFECT IMAGE, along with the Golden Age of Comic Characters, was gone!

So it was, when, Comic Characters Invaded our world, we never fought back. And, in 1937, when, Snow White led the Final Assault, in the form of the First Full Length Animated Cartoon, the Whole World, Surrendered, gladly, to her Charms, and we offered up our hearts, once and for all, in a jeweled box. But, meanwhile, on other Fronts, a Roaring Battle Raged!

Modern Art vs. The World

I'm not referring to the Second World War, but, rather, to the War, that had been going on, for years, in the World of Art. A War in which, Great Warriors, like Braque, Picasso, and Matisse, wielding paint brushes, instead of swords, fought valiantly, against the Public! They, and an army of artists, yet unknown, struggled to win acceptance for a radical new kind of Art, an Art of Abstraction and Stylization, Simplification and Exaggeration, sometimes, known as "Modern Art"! And, We, the Ignorant Masses, Fought Back, defending Realism, "tooth and nail!"

The Battle continued throughout most of The Twentieth Century, amid cries of "What's that Supposed to be?" and "What the Heck is That?" But, in the end, the valiant Artists, proclaimed, "Victory!". And, today, their works are enshrined in museums, and their names, are revered, by History. Although, even now, there are, still, some among us, who have not, yet, conceded "defeat"!

Isn't it Ironic that Modern Art had to fight so hard to introduce Abstraction to the world? When all the while, Abstract Art had Already been, Peacefully, Introduced and, Willingly, Accepted by an Eager Public, many years Before, in the form of Comic Characters!

When one compares the History of Modern Art, to the History of Comic Characters, there are many Similarities to be found, and Milestones to be Applauded, But, time and again, one discovers that the Comic Characters, Did It First! Salvador Dali, for instance, introduced us to the dream world of Surrealism, complete with melting watches and flaming giraffes. But, Windsor McCay had already taken LITTLE NEMO to SLUMBERLAND in 1905. And we joined them there, each week, for many years, to find the Land of Beautiful Dreams, to be, not only, as Fantastic and Surreal as anything that Dali did, but that, McCay was a better draftsman, too! And, even the most extreme Abstractions and distortions in Pablo Picasso's Art, were firmly based on real forms, that he observed in a live model. Close study reveals that, there is no Abstraction in Picasso's work, as far removed from life, as the Pure Abstraction that we find in Mickey Mouse! And if we look closely at the coarse four color offset dots, on any Funny Paper page, just as George Seurat, himself, must have done, we can discover "Pointillism" for ourselves!

MOMA and Pop

In the mid 1960s, another artist, Roy Lichtenstein, looked at those same dots, and said to himself, "Hey, these Comic Books are Great Art!", And Blew the Images Up so LARGE, that everyone else, had to agree! Then, Andy Warhol looked at a Brillo Box and said "Hey, this should be in the Museum of Modern Art!". And, the "POP ART" Movement had arrived, to sweep away old beliefs, and change our rigid attitudes, about what constituted "ART". Suddenly All the ARTifacts of our POPular Culture, were seen as having the potential to qualify as "ART", and all the second class citizens of the "Commercial Art" World, Those, unknown Artists toiling in Publishing, and Industry, and even, those, who were designing Toys, or drawing Comic Books, might be permitted to think of themselves, as "ARTISTS", too!

But, Pop Art poses, an Intriguing Riddle: "Who is the "Real" Artist?" Is it Andy Warhol, because he looked at the Brillo Box and proclaimed: "This is Art!"? Or is the "Real" Artist, the Guy, who Designed the Brillo Box? And, are we, now, permitted to look at a Comic Book, and choose the Images we like, on our own? Or do we need Roy Lichtenstein to point the Good ones out? And, if we were so bold, as to pick one, and blow it up, ourselves, would We be the "Real" Artist, then? Or would it Be the Guy who drew the Comic Book?


Whatever the answer might be, of This, I'm certain: There IS a "Real" Artist in there, somewhere! And So It Is with "Comic Characters". Somewhere, among the Art, and Imagery of Comic Characters, and the Toys, and Dolls, and Artifacts, and Icons, they generated, There is Great "ART"! And, taken all together, This Great Body of Work, from the Collective Hands of a multitude of Artists, Known, and Unknown, together representing, the Hands of a Great Nation, Will, One day, Be Recognized as One of the Most Important Art Movements of The Twentieth Century!

Today...

Comic Characters are Alive, and doing Well, on Planet Earth. They Decorate our Homes and adorn, everything, from clothing to cereal boxes. They, also, dominate the Entertainment Media, Movies, Video Games, Books and, especially, Television, where they amuse us, and our children, nonstop, 24 hours a day, and have, also, proven to be better teachers, than our schools. Comic Characters own the Toy Stores, too? They, not only, fill every shelf, but, these days, talk to us, as we walk down the aisles. The store itself, of course, is managed by an animated giraffe! And once or twice a year, when we feel the need for More Comic Characters, we take our families on a Pilgrimage to the nearest "Comic Character Mecca", where we can Worship Them, In Person! Now, one century after Comic Characters first entered our world, their Population is Exploding, and, if an Alien Civilization is watching us, or intercepting our TV, they might, well, get the impression that Comic Characters are the dominant life form on this planet!

And Tomorrow

As the world embarks upon the Twenty-first Century, the "Great Comic Character Media Shower" continues. As, one New Character, after another, momentarily, Illuminates the Sky, in a Blaze of Glory, only to, Flicker, Fade, and, Fall to Earth, ... creating little, lasting, Impact! And, meanwhile, it would seem that Walt Disney's famous quote: "It all Started with a Mouse!" although, referring to the past, has proved to be Prophetic! For, tomorrow's Comic Characters, too, Will, "All Start with a Mouse", though, not the kind of "Mouse", that Disney had in mind. And all Comic Characters, born, from this time forward, will, no doubt belong to the "Computer Generated Generation"!

But what about that older generation, All The Funny Folks? Do these Innovative Characters that led the Invasion and created the Golden Age of Comic Characters, have any Future in our world? Will their Images be enshrined in a museum, their names revered by history? Or are these Milestones in the "True History" of "Modern Art" destined to sink and disappear, beneath the shifting sands of time?

Over the years, many of my friends and fellow Collectors, Have dropped out of collecting, for one reason or another. And I watched, as their Collections were scattered and dispersed at Auction, until, today, only a few, remain. And, I cannot help but wonder: Will anyone, still, cherish, and Collect these Irreplaceable Works of Art, a hundred years from now? I don't know if there is a "new generation" of Comic Character Collectors, waiting in the wings. But, I do know that, If new Collectors come, They will Not be from the ranks of those, who pour over "Price Guides", and anguish over "Condition", seeking Nirvana, "Mint in the Box"! They will be young people, with an "eye" for Art, as I was, once, and they will fall in love with the IMAGES and follow them, along a route, I, also, traveled, back in time, to meet the "Stars" that shone so brightly, long ago, in the Golden Age of Comic Characters.

 

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Bibliography 

Lait, Jack and Louis Biedermann. All the Funny Folks. New York: The World Today, 1926.

Outcault, Richard F. and Bill Blackbeard. The Yellow Kid. Northampton, MA: Kitchen Sink press, 1995.

Blackbeard, Bill and Martin Williams. The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1977.

Canemaker, John. Winsor McCay, His Life and Art. New York: Abbeville Press, Inc. 1987.

Canemaker, John. Felix: The Twisted Tale of the World's Most Famous Cat. New York: Pantheon Books, 1991.

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

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