Friday, August 08, 2014



Several readers have expressed concern that corporate art-- big institutional projects from major studios and multinational software companies-- will swallow up individual creative voices at Comic-Con.  But each year I encounter artists who are indigestible and irreducible stones in the belly of the dragon.  They refuse to compromise their creative vision (or perhaps they're just incapable of reining in their personal eccentricities).

I encountered Bill Plympton, the famously independent animator and illustrator, sitting at one of the few tables without a ten foot full color banner of semi-nude space nymphettes.  If his booth had a Dolby soundtrack, it was out of commission during my visit.  If Plympton brought a funny barbarian hat, it was nowhere in sight.

What Plympton's booth offered instead was Plympton, sitting on his ass and drawing with a plain old ball point pen,  surrounded by piles of original animation drawings and books about his work. 

Plympton has become justly famous for his offbeat, highly personal, subversive animation:

From Santa: The Fascist Years (2008)




Plympton maintains such control over his art, he is one of the few artists in the history of animation who insists on doing every single drawing himself.

You'd think with that much drawing, his fingers would be worn to little nubs.  Yet, as we compared notes on illustrators we both admired, he picked up a pad and drew my portrait with his ball point pen. He is apparently inexhaustible.

Here are scans of his original drawings:   

 There is an excellent book about Plympton's life and career.  His description of Disney's lucrative  contract offer rivals Faust's meeting with Mephistopheles:

I was hoping that I could work on the Disney projects during the week and during my off-hours and weekends I could work on my own weird offbeat projects.  "Sure," the lawyer said.  "That's fine, and you have our permission but we'll own whatever you create."

"What about if I tell someone a funny story?" I rebutted.

"We own that," he said.

"What if I have a dream?"

"That's ours too." 

Plympton walked away from a lot of money in order to save his work from the corporate de-flavorizing machine. He has made good use of his expensive freedom.

I think Plympton is the real McCoy, with a distinctive individual voice.  I would never have had an opportunity to chat with him and look at his originals up close, if not for Comic-Con.  

Life drawing


MORAN said...

Plympton's work is all over youtube. He's really talented.

Levantine said...

.....Plympton walked away from a lot of money in order to save his work from the corporate de-flavorizing machine. He has made good use of his expensive freedom. I think Plympton is the real McCoy, with a distinctive individual voice.....

My first association with Plympton are his short animations used for a series about the final days of the Soviet Union and the early nineties in Russia. [1] The visual element of that work was very appealing. The narrative element was Yeltsin as the enlightened guy against the assorted communist forces of darkness who, in the film, ended literally down a toilet. I sensed an alarming bias: the enlightened guy bombed a peopled parliamentary building, and presided over a national demographic disaster bigger than Stalin's purges and Holodomor put together. In the short period between 1991. and 1994., the average lifespan in Russia declined from 64 years to 57 years [2]. Without 'contributions' such as Plympton's, the world would have shown more mercy to the millions of victims of post-communism.

When I look at the Plympton's work you provided, again I see a distinct degree of viciousness.

And this can illustrate a thesis about the illustration business:

A "distinctive individual voice" is deeply ambiguous. Such voices come in such different flavours - that you may regret asking for one. Authentic creators exist like different animal species.

To illustrate one genera, one may bring up Gustav Rehberger: "My career was not easy," said Rehberger in one interview. "It seemed I was always going upstream and against the grain."

Another kind is Plympton, who follows fairly mainstream concepts (the mainstream has gone cynical), and who fills his work with so much negativity that his potential opposition is either extinguished or frightened. Of course, to be Plympton you need to invest an enormous amount of time and effort; but so you do to live as a draught oxen.

I recall, David, that you said you don't sense any particular coldness / harshness about the drawings of Leonard Starr. So, I expect that in Plympton's work you just see a healthy rudeness, authenticity, wonderful skill... be my guest.

[1] these are apparently not listed on the imdb; still, they were in his very recognizable style

[2] Stuckler & Basu (2013)

Anonymous said...

I don't know Plympton's politics but I like his cartoons. Hanna Barbera and Marvel Animation make tons of boring shit so we need a little viciousness to fight back.


David Apatoff said...

MORAN-- Yes, there's a lot of Plympton's animation work available on line.

Levantine-- I looked through Plympton's autobiography but didn't spot any reference to the Soviet films you mention, although I suppose it's always possible. Let's put aside for the moment your claim that the Yeltsin years were a "a national demographic disaster bigger than Stalin's purges and Holodomor put together" or that the animated movies you describe influenced world opinion about "the millions of victims of post-communism"-- both of which seem highly improbable. I'm happy to engage on them, but they seem less pertinent than the underlying question about judging art by it moral content.

Plympton struck me as a perfectly friendly, good natured guy but I don't disagree that some of his work has a "vicious"-- or at least dark -- tone. His work is neither sanitized nor homogenized like standard corporate fare is. Individual DNA, with all of its interesting quirks, is almost eradicated in big studio work which is financed by institutional shareholders and cross-licensing deals with fast food franchises, however beautiful the result may be. It seems to me that Plympton's work is certainly part of the "crooked timber of humanity." Furthermore, I'd say it is recognizable and true. I can understand your personal preference for other aspects of human nature, but are you suggesting that Plympton's art is inferior because of its subject matter? How do you feel about the work of George Grosz, John Cuneo, R. Crumb, Steadman, Kollwitz, etc?

Anonymous/JSL -- You reinforce my answer to Levantine, above-- There are metric tons of bland, meaningless cartoons out there with flavorless, unobjectionable drawings. They make you yearn, every once in a while, for contrast in the form of viciousness.