Interview: Gene Deitch Pt. 2 [of 4]

Categories:  Interviews

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After more than half a century in animation, there’s little doubt that Gene Deitch’s true legacy lies within that field, from the Oscar winning Jules Feiffer collaboration Munro, to a series of Tom and Jerry cartoons for MGM, to his more recent work animating children’s books like Where the Wild Things Are.

But it was comics that was Deitch’s first true love. Weaned on newspaper strips, the artist was offered the opportunity to create his own series in the mid-50s for United Features. The result was Terr’ble Thompson, a strip that ran a mere six months (the full run of which was collected in an eponymous Fantagraphics anthology in recent years). Deitch made the difficult decision to abandon his series after receiving an even more promising job offer in animation.

Deitch has left an even larger impact on the world of comics, as the father of underground legend Kim Deitch (as well as brothers and sometimes collaborators, Simon and Seth Deitch).

In this second part of our interview, we explore Deitch’s long-standing fascination with the medium, from Segar’s Popeye to Millar’s Kick-Ass.

[Part One]

Is the studio making films largely for the Czech Republic?

No, no. As a matter of fact, in the over 50 years that I’ve worked here, I’ve never worked for them. Basically I’ve been making films for Weston Woods in Connecticut. They’re a subsidiary of Scholastic. They make films to be shown in schools and libraries. It’s not a big deal, not like when you’re doing Tom and Jerry or feature films, but for me, it’s been steady work, and I’m in a position where I get royalties on all my films.

The films I’ve made for them over the past 40 years, the first films are selling just as well as the new films. There are new children. I’m able to live on the royalties, basically. I can’t knock it. I don’t have the big time upfront thing, like when I was doing theater distribution.

So when you say that the censors are looking for things like bears, are you talking about in the context of a Tom and Jerry cartoon?

No. We were isolated. When I did come here and we saw the possibilities and started getting all of these contracts, the communists let us set up in a separate location across town for doing what they called “custom films.” We were not tainting the people who did the films for the socialist ideal. They didn’t mess with us at all. That was a condition I made. I said, “okay, I’ll stay here and make this films, but don’t mess with these films. These are films that are made to be shown in America, so they aren’t subject to your censorship.” And they went with that.

I was lucky. We didn’t have any censorship from them. We had much more censorship from the American clients. Because when you’re doing custom films or commercials for America, they’re on your neck for every little detail. That’s how it was in New York. I had much more censorship in New York than I had out here.

Studios like Disney are infamous for protecting their characters.

Oh yeah.

They’ve got very strict style guides. Were the Tom and Jerry cartoons the same way?

Well, we had a contract to do so many films, that’s all. Obviously we had to conform to the Tom and Jerry characters. We had to use the model sheets and make them look exactly like the Hannah Barbera Tom and Jerry.

People say they see a difference with mine, but it’s hard for me to put my finger on what they see. I was striving to make them look exactly like the Hannah Barbera films. But that’s normal. When you’re doing anything for a client, you have to do exactly what the client wants.

Nowadays, I’m adapting children’s picture books for use in schools and libraries and affluent parents, who buy these DVDs. My job is to be authentic to the book. So my censorship is that I have to reflect exactly the design style of the book as accurately as possible. But I enjoy that. I don’t look at it as censorship. I look at it as a challenge.

I remember the Where the Wild Things Are short you did. Is it all a similar vein?

Exactly. You look at our Wild Things, and it looks exactly like the book—I hope. When Maurice Sendak came to visit us here in Prague, the producer asked if he could tell which scenes were our drawings and which scene were his drawings. He was taking it seriously. He said, “I’m sure that this and this and this is mine. I’m not so sure about that and that.” And, of course, none of them were his.

That was a great, triumphant moment. He absolutely couldn’t recognize that they weren’t his own drawings. We have people who are very good at that. As we say, “we learn the handwriting of the illustrator.” With his stuff, it was inked crosshatching on a watercolor background. Sometimes we’ve had woodcuts and pen and ink drawings, and every kind of technique possible. We have to adapt to whatever it is. That’s part of the challenge.

Are you working on anything at present that’s really in your own style, be it animation or something else?

We’re working every day. Right now we’re doing a series for Japan. Weston Wood is not my only client, but it’s been my longest-lived client. This is an interesting client. They also own a big library of classical records in Japan. They wanted a Jr. grade Fantasia. They wanted us to take classical recordings and make six minute excerpts of the music—Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, everything.

It was very deftly cut. They made a six minute edition that has a beginning and an end, so that it really feels like one piece. And then we have to interpret it in animation. We have two designers, two illustrators, and we’re doing basically what Disney did with Fantasia, taking it and making our own interpretation of the music. It doesn’t have to have anything to do with the story the composer had in mind. We’re just doing what we think fits. It’s fun.

So we’re working on that at the moment. I’ve also done some series for Holland and Norway and different countries in Europe, but our fallback is still the children’s books for Weston Woods.

Are you doing any drawing yourself?

Yes. I draw the storyboards and work out the visual story. And I draw out all of the key animation poses. I like to do that. I draw the layouts.

You did the Terr’ble Thompson, which Fantagraphics released as a collection, a few years back. That was drawn in your own style.

Yeah, I don’t get too many opportunities to do that. Terr’ble Thompson was a style I adapted for that comics strip. I wanted something that looked like a comic strip, was a little ahead—something that had the UPA influence. Another series I did for Paramount was called Nudnik. That was also my own design. That’s my own personal favorite series.

Unfortunately, it didn’t run long enough to get celebrity. It took years in the movie days for a character to get national celebrity. Because you go to a movie and you might see one or two or three of these cartoons a year. Now if you do a series and it ends up on television, you can get fame instantly. But Nudnik was the last of the series and it never got seen be a lot of people, even though two of them were nominated for Oscars. The character is not really well known, but it’s still one of my favorite things.

That was my design. Of course, if you’ve seen my other book, The Cat on a Hot Tin Groove, my jazz cartoons, that’s a completely different style. I’m used to working in all different styles. I don’t want people to say, “this is in Gene Deitch’s style.” I want to do everything.

Was the purpose of Terr’ble Thompson to develop a marketable character?

Well, I always wanted to do a comic strip. It was dream that came true when I got a United Features syndicated strip. It was unfortunate that I was caught between two things. At the same time that the comic strip got launched, I got an offer to be the creative director of Terry Toons studios. That was the job of a lifetime. I simply could not do a Sunday and daily comic strip and work at this big animation studio. There were almost 150 people there, and we had the big 20th Century Fox release. We had to do eight Cinemascope cartoons a year. And I developed Tom Terrific there.

That was very full employment, I had to give up the comic strip. It broke my heart. All my life, I wanted to do a comic strip.

How closely have you followed the comics industry, over the years? Obviously two of your sons have gotten pretty heavily into it.

Well, my son, Kim Deitch, has great success in this area. He really is one-of-a-kind. He has a style like nobody else’s and he’s had a great success. Obviously he follows all of that. But I have to admit, that I haven’t followed it that closely. It isn’t my thing. My interest was Sunday comics. It was way before television. We had radio serials, of course, but it was the daily comics. I waited every day, as a kid, to get the paper.

The comics took up a whole page—sometimes two pages—of the daily paper. And the Sunday strips, each author got a whole page. That was really terrific. You work your way up to things like Terry and the Pirates. And, of course, I loved Segar’s Popeye. That’s the only Popeye I consider to really be Popeye.

I had fallen in love with the newspaper comics. But they were a whole different thing. Today’s comics, have really crossed a line into which anything is possible. There’s no longer any kind of censorship. You’ve got this latest thing in The New Yorker [pulls out a copy of the magazine].

The latest thing is called Kick-Ass. I couldn’t even imagine anything like that. This is absolutely undiluted violence. It’s really hard for me to see what the social value is of this sort of thing. Everyone can go for their own thing. I’m not going to knock anybody’s thing. But it’s not my thing.

I like to do something that the kids are going to like and that will be entertaining, obviously, but I want it to have some real meaning and some social value, if possible.

[Continued in Part Three.]

–Brian Heater