It begins at the Kansas City airport, when I hear two people talking about the X-Files Reunion, and whether they can get tickets. Gillian Anderson, David Duchovny, and others will be on a panel honoring the 20th anniversary of the show’s debut. On the plane itself, nearly everyone is headed to Comic-Con. There are people wearing t-shirts with conspicuous logos (such as Batman), tell-tale reading material, conversations about Comic-Con. There are people with a “nerdy” look and people without, and many variations within and in between those categories.
I am not wearing a t-shirt with a logo on it, but the woman checking us in at the hotel, asks, “Comic-Con?” Perhaps the conspicuous absence of a tan gives us away.
After a short walk, we approach the convention center, and the crowds soon become as thick as any in Manhattan (New York, not Kansas) at midday. A few people are in costume. There’s a Spider-Man, and one of the crew of the original U.S.S. Enterprise (Star Trek). But most are in shorts and t-shirt (as I am) or jeans and t-shirt or in a dress. This, I think, is because my being an Eisner Award nominee places us in the “Professionals” category of registration. I expect to see more costumed attendees tomorrow.
There are crowds of people already — even though the programming proper begins tomorrow. But it’s very well-organized. Stand in line, and there many volunteers making sure that your bar-code email matches your ID, and there lots of staff printing out the badges, directing you where to go. It moves quickly and efficiently.
When you check in, you get a massive bag designed to be worn as a backpack. This is savvy marketing for three reasons. First, it encourages consumption. No one wants to be lugging a bag full of books by the handle. Put it on your back, and sure, there’s room for more! Second, the side of the bag that faces your back has the Comic-Con logo on it. The side facing out is advertising a TV show, turning the wearer into a walking billboard. Mine is encouraging people to watch Arrow on the CW this fall. And, presumably because it’s Comic-Con, the bag also has a black cape that unfurls. This is the third reason it’s smart marketing. Not only is the item useful, but it’s a toy, a costume, a game. (When you unfurl the cape, it covers up the advertisement — which invites the question What’s under there?)
We were going to attend “Warner Bros. Television Preview Night,” but Karin’s tired. And, to tell the truth, I’m a bit tired myself … and I had some work to do. (Sent back edits on a book review, continued revising a fellowship proposal that I didn’t finish on the plane,….) I’m sure that some people reading this are thinking: What? You skipped free previews?! But, to be honest, I’m as interested in the phenomenon of Comic-Con as I am in individual panels. And, tomorrow after breakfast with Mr. Charles Hatfield and a morning signing at the Fantagraphics table, I am going to those panels. So… best to rest up for the big day.
P.S. Appropriately, the Zombie Apocalypse Store is adjacent to a Hooters. No, I’m not kidding. If I were a better photographer, I’d have snapped a shot of the two establishments side by side. This is not part of Comic-Con (as far as I know). It just happened to be on the walk back from dinner.
But what does the film itself say? In its own way, Illumination Entertainment’s film adaptation actually does speak for the trees. Sure, having the film’s male lead (Ted, voiced by Zac Efron) drive a gigantic motor-scooter isn’t exactly environmentally friendly. Why not give him a bicycle, or, better, the Seussian equivalent of a bicycle? That said, the kid only gets his ecological consciousness raised near the end of the film. So, perhaps having him buck social convention prior to the awakening of his conscience would have been less plausible for his character.
In any case, he does get the message. Initially, he seeks a Truffula seed solely to impress the girl he has a crush on — Audrey, voiced by Taylor Swift. (She’s named for Geisel’s widow, and he’s named for Theodor Seuss Geisel himself.) However, by film’s end, the Once-ler has convinced Ted of the Lorax’s message. In one of the movie’s final scenes, Ted, defending his goal of planting the last Truffula seed in the town square, announces, “I’m Ted Wiggins. And I speak for the trees!” Indeed, the movie manages to work the book’s central message in twice:
UNLESS someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better.
Realizing what the “UNLESS” left by the Lorax must mean, The Once-ler delivers this line, just as he does in the book. Later, just before the credits roll, the filmmakers put the full quotation up on the screen:
UNLESS someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better.
— Dr. Seuss
In The Lorax’s film adaptation, the book’s environmental message comes through loud and clear.
It also amplifies the book’s depiction of capitalism as amoral. In the “How Bad Can I Be?” number, the Once-ler (in the narrative of his past) sings about the “biggering and biggering” of his business: “My conscience is clear. I’ve done nothing illegal. I have my rights.” Just after he sings, “nothing is going to stop me,” the Super-Axe-Hacker cuts down the last Truffula tree, and the Lorax (voiced by Danny DeVito) tells him, “That’s it. The very last one. That may stop ya.” This puts the lie to the plaque on the wall of his mansion, glimpsed earlier in the song:
Aligning the Once-ler’s Thneed business with the mismanaged banking industry, the film reminds us that no one is too big to fail. The Once-ler’s remorse for destroying the trees also indicates that all business decisions are moral ones: what is legal or financially remunerative may not also be moral.
Driving this point home, the film creates a second villain who, unlike the Once-ler, does not develop a conscience during the movie. Voiced by Rob Riggle, O’Hare is the businessman who runs Thneedville, where our protagonist and everyone but the Once-ler lives. He makes his money selling air. Thneedville is a walled-in, completely artificial city: As we learn at the beginning of the film, it’s “a town without nature, not one living tree.” Visually, it looks a little too appealing, like a Seussian amusement park. The grey, desiccated Street of the Lifted Lorax more effectively makes vivid the effects of pollution. However, the film shows us that scene, too. And it exposes O’Hare’s mercenary nature: he doesn’t want a tree in Thneedville because it’s bad for business. Warning Ted to cease venturing outside Thneedville (where the Once-ler lives), he says, “I make a living selling fresh air to people. Trees — they make it for free. So, I see this as a threat to my business.”
As you will have already discerned, yes, the film is didactic. Of course, the book was didactic, too. Both offer entertaining didacticism — brightly colored landscapes, rollicking anapestic verse, and, in the film, more fully developed characters, dance numbers, a lively score by and even a tween crush. Seuss purists may complain: but the book has no dance numbers, no tween crush, no Thneedville, no O’Hare, and the Once-ler does not play the guitar! All of that is true. If you were hoping for a movie that was slavishly faithful to Seuss’s original book, then the film will disappoint.
However, a picture book and a film each have different strengths and weaknesses. An attempt to create a literal rendition of the book would fail,… and would probably be quite short. The question to ask is not: Was the film faithful to the book? No film can be faithful to its original source, and nor should it aspire to be. The question to ask is: How well did the director, writers, actors, animators, etc. translate the experience of the book into the medium of animated film? And: Did their film manage to convey the core experience of the book? In the case of The Lorax, the answer is: Yes.
Indeed, I would go so far as to say that Dr. Seuss himself would like the film — or most of it, anyway.
I doubt Seuss would appreciate seeing his Lorax selling SUVs, diapers, or pancakes, just as I suspect he would have disapproved of the Grinch being used to sell cereal, candy, and soda. The 2000 live-action Grinch film had its title character selling Frosted Mini-Wheats, Hershey’s candies, and Sprite — among many other products. When Seuss’s anti-consumerist grouch (the Grinch) is selling Frosted Flakes or his environmental protector (the Lorax) is selling SUVs, there’s a problem.
Yes, I recognize that product tie-ins are a standard way to underwrite the astronomical costs of a big-budget film. Furthermore, I’m aware that Seuss was an advertising man himself: until the publication of The Cat in the Hat (1957), he made his living by creating advertisements, not children’s literature. In other words, I’m not trying to represent Seuss as a morally uncomplicated, anti-consumerist figure. He was a commercial success in part because he was able to apply what he learned in advertising to writing and illustrating books for children.
However, you don’t have to be a Seuss scholar to see that the Lorax should be speaking for the trees, not the SUVs. As the book and the film make clear, we really don’t need more Thneeds.
My rating for the film: B+.
My rating for the tie-ins: F.
1. The trailer plays up the romance narrative, which (mercifully) doesn’t figure as prominently in the film. Below, the longer version. The short ads give the whole love-interest angle even more prominence.
2. In connection with the film, the Lorax is selling the Mazda CX-5 as “Truffula Tree-Certified.” In addition to running on TV, this ad ran in the theatre prior to the start of the film. Oy.
3. As the Horton Hears a Who! film (which I would also recommend) did, The Lorax is selling food of dubious nutritional merit. That is, both are selling food from the International House of Pancakes. At IHoP, you can buy Rooty Tooty Bar-Ba-Looty Blueberry Cone Cakes and Truffula Chip Pancakes.
True, the commercial above indicates that IHoP is also giving away free seeds — which, at least, is something.
4. Seventh Generation is selling diapers bearing the Lorax’s likeness. In their defense, they’re trying to make healthier diapers (which is more in line with The Lorax‘s message). Of course, they are disposable, which isn’t great for the environment.
Courtesy of Mark Newgarden, it’s Crockett Johnson advising you to get a check-up so that you don’t get cancer. Johnson created this 1958 pamphlet for the American Cancer Society, and I strongly suspect that he designed it, too. (Clicking on each image will produce a larger version.)
Unfold to the left, and see:
Next, unfold to the right, for:
When you click on the above (for a larger image), you’ll see the Crockett Johnson aesthetic at work — a clear line, with small changes from panel to panel (recalling his Little Man with the Eyes in this respect).
When the pamphlet advises, “Know these warning signals may mean cancer,” I can’t help but think of Crockett Johnson’s death from lung cancer, 17 years later. Which signals prompted him to go to the doctor in early 1975? And, as a lifelong smoker, did he already suspect what was wrong with him?
In my Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (coming this fall), I reproduce a full-page magazine ad Johnson did for the American Cancer Society. But I’d never seen this pamphlet until Mark sent it to me. Had we time and were there interest, it’d be fun to collect all of Johnson’s advertising work and publish it in a small book. I doubt there’d be much of a market for such an item, but it’s a nice idea to imagine.
Although I wouldn’t argue that once upon a time “illustrators were celebrities,” it’s definitely true that they were once more celebrated than they are now. Predictably, one illustrator who comes to my mind is Crockett Johnson (my biography of Johnson and his wife Ruth Krauss will be published in the fall of 2012). In 1947, Johnson’s casual remark during a visit to the offices of William Sloane Associates struck Sloane — who founded the publishing company the previous year, after leaving Henry Holt (where he had been Vice President) — as interesting enough to use in an advertisement. (Click on the image to enlarge.)
The book to which Johnson refers is Ward Moore‘s Greener Than You Think (1947), a science-fiction satire about a mutant strain of crabgrass that ultimately takes over the world. Even by the standards of science fiction, it’s an unusual novel.
I know this because, when I found this advertisement (thanks to ProQuest’s Historical New York Times database), I sought a copy of Moore’s novel and read it. I wondered: Why would Crockett Johnson be drawn to such a curious book? Or, indeed, was he drawn to it at all? One should not take advertisements at face value, and, in any case, Johnson had a wry sense of humor. Perhaps this off-hand quip was nothing more than just that. Or, it may have simply been one of the many things in which he was interested. Johnson’s curiosity covered a wide array of subjects; in his intellectual interests and abilities, he was very much a renaissance man.
Turns out that, in its claim of Johnson’s interest in the book, the advertisement appears to have been telling the truth. In some 1947 notes written in an attempt to overcome writer’s block, Ruth Krauss mentions her husband’s interest in this book — which, she suspects, derives from his lifelong aversion to crab grass. Though Johnson later gave up on gardening, in the 1940s he was an avid gardner.
I ultimately did include a few sentences on this book in the biography. I did so because it illuminated an aspect of Johnson’s character, spoke to his wide-ranging interests, and located him in the offices of a publisher during a rough patch, professionally. I speculated that he might have been in the offices of the former VP of Holt (which published his two Barnaby books) in order to discuss the planned but never published third Barnaby book. It’s also mentioned in the bio. because it tells us that, in 1947, Johnson carried enough cultural caché to be quoted in a New York Times advertisement.
This little episode is but one of many reasons why this biography has taken so long to write. (I began working on it in the waning days of the Clinton Administration.) It’s also why, although I’m tempted to undertake another biography, actually doing so seems less likely. Undertaking another one is likely another decade’s worth of commitment.
Posts tagged Crockett Johnson or Ruth Krauss or Biography will all send you to something connected to the biography. If you’d like a more directed reading experience, here’s an incomplete list of other posts:
A clever riff on the Surrealist game that exploits the mysteries of accidental juxtapositions, this mid-exhibit bar also offered a welcome rest to travel-weary visitors (such as your humble narrator, who visited the exhibit following a 15-hour flight from Dallas-Ft. Worth). Should you find yourself in Brisbane prior to 2 October 2011, the GoMA exhibit on Surrealism is excellent, bringing in not only the usual suspects (Marcel Duchamp, Giorgio De Chirico, Max Ernst, Jean Arp, René Magritte, Salvador Dalí, Man Ray), but also some whose art is not as well known (Victor Brauner, André Masson, Dora Maar) and Surrealism’s legacy in works by Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, Dorothea Tanning and Joseph Cornell.
A particular strength of the exhibit are the half-dozen or so surrealist films interspersed (and continuously running) throughout the exhibit, such as the classic (and disturbing) Buñuel-Dalí collaboration Un Chien Andalou:
R.J. Reynolds Tobacco began selling Camel Orbs, Camel Sticks and Camel Strips earlier this year.
“The Orbs look like Tic Tacs, the Sticks look like toothpicks and the Strips look like breath strips,” said Susan Westof, tobacco prevention specialist, with the Jefferson County Public Health Department. …
“The products are packaged in a way that makes them indistinguishable from candy,” said Donna Viverette, the department’s tobacco prevention coordinator. “That’s an issue if they end up in the hands of children.”
I suppose it was inevitable. To entice children to try their product, cigarette companies have used cartoon characters (Joe Camel) and hip accessories (Marlboro Gear). Why not take the next logical step and disguise nicotine as candy? One wonders why they’ve waited so long to do this.
R.J.Reynolds company spokesperson alleges that no, of course they wouldn’t market their product to children. However, these “dissolvables” look and taste like candy — specifically, like chocolate mint. They come in attractive packages that can be easily hidden in a shirt pocket. Which, of course, is precisely the idea. Children can get hooked on these candy-flavored tobacco sticks, and easily conceal the package. Clever.
And, of course, vital for the industry. If it hooks a smoker at a young age, then a tobacco company can sell so much more of its product — until, of course, the smoker dies. But death takes years! And young people tend to be more susceptible to marketing. So… tobacco companies have long tried to lure the young user. It’s good for business.
But disguising nicotine as candy? Even for an industry not known for any sense of shame, this approach seems particularly brazen. As Harvard School of Public Health Professor Gregory N. Connolly (the lead researcher on a study of these products) said, “Nicotine is a highly addictive drug, and to make it look like a piece of candy is recklessly playing with the health of children.”
In the same New York Times article from which the above quotation comes, R.J. Reynolds spokesman David Howard says that it’s unfair to single out these candy-like tobacco products for criticism: after all, many households contain products dangerous to children. Mr. Howard explains, “Virtually every household has products that could be hazardous to children, like cleaning supplies, medicines, health and beauty products, and you compare that to 20 to 25 percent of households that use tobacco products.” But Dr. Jonathan P. Winickoff, Harvard medical professor, offers a sharp, pithy response to Mr. Howard’s sophistry: “The difference here is that kids potentially will be watching grown-ups ingesting these products. The last time I checked, we don’t have adults drinking toilet bowl cleanser in front of their kids.”
Well, not until R.J. Reynolds finds a way to market a delicious, sweet toilet-bowl-cleanser drink. And, given the company’s new candy-flavored nicotine, I wouldn’t put anything past them.
Born 107 years ago today in Springfield Mass., Theodor Seuss Geisel had an extraordinarily prolific career. Most people know him for the 44 books he wrote and illustrated under the name “Dr. Seuss.” But that’s only part of his career. He wrote another 13 books under the name “Theo. LeSieg,” one book as “Rosetta Stone,” and then there are books co-authored, books published posthumously, and books illustrated by others. And those are only the books. He did so much more!
So, in honor of his birthday, here are three other “thinks” that Seuss thought.
1. Gerald McBoing-Boing. Featuring Dr. Seuss’s verse and the animation skills of Bill Melendéz (who would later work on the animated Peanuts specials), United Productions of America released Gerald McBoing-Boing in 1950. The film would win an Academy Award for Best Animated Short. The studio would go on to produce a few McBoing-Boing sequels and the Mr. Magoo cartoons.
2. The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. Seuss’s live-action musical, released in 1953, features notable performances by Tommy Rettig (later Jeff on TV’s Lassie) and Hans Conried. For more info., you might take a look at this earlier blog post. Below, a happily campy musical number featuring Mr. Conried as Dr. T.
3. Advertising, and lots of it. Before he was a children’s writer, Seuss was an ad-man. Even after he started writing for children (his first children’s book was published in 1937), he still made his living in advertising. The success of his 13th children’s book, The Cat in the Hat (1957), would change all that. After the publication of The Cat, he was able to devote himself to writing for children full-time. For more on Seuss’s ads, you might take a look at this earlier blog post.
And there are so many other areas we could explore — political cartoons, to name one example. His paintings and other illustration work, to name two more. But I’ll wrap things up in the next few sentences, and offer some suggestions where — in addition to the links throughout this post — you might go to learn more. Depending on your threshold for flashy web design, you could check out Random House’s Seussville website: it features my biography of Seuss, along with abundant animation and sound effects (I suggest you mute your computer’s volume before clicking on either of the links in this sentence). For a more complete biography, though, do turn to the primary source for what I wrote for Random House: Judith and Neil Morgan’s Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel (1995). Indeed, if you read only one secondary source on Dr. Seuss, that’s the book to read.
“Barnaby exclusively in the Chicago Sun!” Here’s a photo of a Chicago Sun delivery truck in the 1940s.
The occasion for sharing the photo is the quest for original Barnaby strips! As readers of this blog know, Eric Reynolds and I are co-editing The Complete Barnaby for Fantagraphics. We’re currently working on gathering strips from 1942-1943 — volume 1 (featuring those strips) is due out in April 2012. Should you have any of these strips (or later ones), do drop me a line! (My email address is at right, under “A note on mp3s.”)
Also, I love the fact that Crockett Johnson‘s comic strip is being used to sell newspapers. Despite the many great strips being written these days (Cul de Sac, Doonesbury, Zits, Non Sequitur, etc.), you don’t see them deployed to help boost a paper’s circulation. Which is a missed opportunity, I think.
Photo credit: Thanks to Charles Davis for sharing this! (Photographer unknown.)
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Crockett Johnson worked with Lou Bunin on some television advertisements. But he had a hard time taking Madison Avenue seriously, as indicated by his parody of an ad for Bosco chocolate syrup (below). Though it’s undated, Johnson (known to his friends as “Dave” ) seems to have sent it to Bunin in about 1960.
This photocopy came into my possession courtesy of the generous Amy Bunin Kaiman (Lou’s daughter), one of many people without whom The Purple Crayon and A Hole Is to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (forthcoming from UP Mississippi, 2012) would not be possible. For more Letters of Note — such as this 1970 letter from William Steig — you might check out the blog by that name.
Mp3s are for sampling purposes. If you like what you hear, please go and buy it. Go to the artists' concerts. Tell your friends about them. If you represent an artist or a label and would prefer that I remove a link to an mp3, please email me: philnel at gmail dot com.