Interview: Bruce Canwell on IDW’s Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies Vol. 1

Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies Vol. 1

Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies Vol. 1

Bruce Canwell is the Associate Editor at The Library of American Comics (LOAC), whose books are published by IDW. Their collections include The Complete Dick Tracy, Rip Kirby, Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim, and many others. Canwell wrote the text for the award-winning Alex Toth: Genius series as well as introductions for many LOAC volumes. Now, LOAC is continuing their Disney line, which began with Walt Disney’s Donald Duck, with Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies Vol. 1! Canwell recently told Westfield’s Roger Ash more about this exciting upcoming collection. (You can click on the comic strips to enlarge them.)

Westfield Comics: Is Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies Sunday strips, dailies, or a mix of both?

Bruce Canwell: The good news for interested readers is that Silly Symphonies was a Sunday strip, intended as a companion of sorts to the Mickey Mouse Sunday page. That means this book and the other three volumes in the series will feature full, Disneyriffic color. And my use of “Disneyriffic” isn’t just hyperbole or a clever turn of phrase — we’re using black-and-white proofs supplied to us straight from the company’s archives, and we’re coloring them using as our guide Walt Disney’s personal file copies of the strip, which were bound into books. On top of it all, our book will be a full twelve inches wide instead of the usual eleven inches, because these early Sundays are extra wide, and we want to display this work to full effect. I think it’s safe to say Silly Symphonies have never looked better than they will in our series!

Color proof of an early Bucky Bug strip from March 6, 1932, the week before Bucky gets his name! The color proof is from Walt Disney’s bound volumes that are being used as guides to recreate the color on the black and white scans.

Color proof of an early Bucky Bug strip from March 6, 1932, the week before Bucky gets his name! The color proof is from Walt Disney’s bound volumes that are being used as guides to recreate the color on the black and white scans.

Westfield Comics: While many readers may not know much about Silly Symphonies today, there are two big events that happened in the strip that they may have heard about. The first is it featured the first Disney character created for comics, Bucky Bug. What can you tell us about Bucky?

Canwell: While Bucky Bug is likely not the most famous character whose initials are “B.B.” (Bugs Bunny probably has that claim to fame, though Charlton and DC boosters might argue for Blue Beetle), Bucky’s first appearance pre-dates Bugs by a full six years!

Bucky was designed specifically to headline the Silly Symphonies comic strip, when it debuted on January 10, 1932. As you noted, Roger, that makes Bucky the first character the Disney shop designed specifically for use in printed comics rather than in animated cartoons. He not only appeared in newspaper pages, he often appeared in comic books, first in the Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories of the 1940s, then in the giant 1950s Silly Symphonies comic books from Dell. Bucky was even depicted on the cover of issue # 5 (that’s Bucky, riding in the pumpkin carriage being driven by Jiminy Cricket).

Dell's Silly Symphonies #5

Dell’s Silly Symphonies #5

Bucky lives in Junkville, hangs with his pal Old Man Bo, woos and eventually marries the apple of his eye, June (June Bug, that is!), and his first comics use captions and word balloons written in rhyme. Hey, two years later The Three Stooges begin their movie career in “Women Haters,” a short film that has all its dialogue delivered in rhyme! The concept wasn’t as unusual at the time as it seems today.

The rhyming aside, I think those who respond to the original, adventurous Mickey Mouse will see a similar brand of pluck, determination, and humor in Bucky Bug. Bucky debuted less than four years after Mickey, so his exploits are very much in that classic “early Disney” vein.

Westfield Comics: The second milestone for Silly Symphonies is that it featured the first comic strip appearance of Donald Duck. What can you tell us about that?

Canwell: This is a perfect place to backtrack and spend a minute or so talking about the Silly Symphonies animation that precedes the comic strip.

Most folks know Mickey Mouse appeared in 1928’s “Steamboat Willie” animated short subject. Fewer know that “Steamboat WIllie” was also one of the first cartoons to offer sound. It was such a hit that Carl W. Stalling — Disney’s music director, who later jumped ship and gained a degree of fame at Warner Bros. — suggested trying a cartoon that showcased sound by building the action around a musical score. That was “The Skeleton Dance,” released in 1929 — it was also the first Silly Symphony.

How influential was the animated Silly Symphonies? Warner Bros. jumped in with similar series, which are the original Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies; by 1934 MGM was producing a series called Happy Harmonies. So Silly Symphonies were clearly a Big Deal.

Their success was in part thanks to the skill of Disney’s creative team, in part due to the studio’s pioneering use of sound, and in part due to Walt’s 1932 deal with Technicolor that gave Disney a huge advantage over their competitors. In fact, the Academy Award for Animated Shorts was first given in 1932 — to a Silly Symphonies cartoon, “Flowers and Trees.” The Symphonies then won the award every year from 1933 through 1937, and again in 1939. So Silly Symphonies weren’t just a Big Deal, they were a H*U*G*E Deal!

I know — right now you’re saying, “OK, OK — what does this have to do with Donald Duck, awreddy?” Here’s the scoop: in 1934 Silly Symphonies released a short called, “The Wise Little Hen.” Its star is, in fact, a wise little hen, but the character who stole the show is a sailor-suited white duck who is, of course, Donald.

“The Wise Little Hen” for October 7, 1934. This story is Donald’s premiere in newspaper strips.

“The Wise Little Hen” for October 7, 1934. This story is Donald’s premiere in newspaper strips.

Also in 1934, the decision was made to phase out Bucky Bug from the Silly Symphonies comic strip and begin adapting Symphonies cartoons like 1931’s “Birds of a Feather.” One of these adaptations was “The Wise Little Hen,” which makes Silly Symphonies the home of Donald’s first comic strip appearance.

But wait — there’s a little bit more! By 1936, Disney artist Al Taliaferro succeeded in convincing his boss that Donald’s skyrocketing popularity called for him to star in a comic strip of his own. Before Disney okayed that idea, he allowed Taliaferro to feature Donald in a fourteen-month stretch of Silly Symphonies. In October of 1937, near the end of Donald’s Symphonies run, Taliaferro introduces Huey, Dewey, and Louie, who were such a hit within the studio that the animation story department quickly transplanted the three nephews from the comics page into the cartoons.

We won’t be able to reprint Donald’s starring run in the strip until our second Silly Symphonies volume, but in this first book you will see his comic strip debut in the adaptation of “The Wise Little Hen” — which, by the way, inevitably though mistakenly gets referred to as “The Little Red Hen” by those of us on whom the Golden Books made an indelible impression!

Westfield Comics: Aside from those two events, what else can readers look forward to in the strips collected in this volume?

Canwell: Our first Silly Symphonies contains a batch of short-film adaptations, including the aforementioned “Birds of a Feather” and “The Robber Kitten.” These days, many of the original cartoons are available for viewing on YouTube, so I find it’s a lot of fun to read the comics, watch the cartoons, and compare and contrast the two. It’s really a fun education in the bedrock that built the Disney empire.

Westfield Comics: A number of classic Disney creators worked on this series. Who are the folks whose work we’ll see here?

Canwell: We’ve already discussed Al Taliaferro, who is one of comics’s underappreciated treasures — he has such a bouncy, energetic line! It’s a great pleasure that we’re giving modern-day readers an opportunity to see his brilliant stuff, first in the pages of our Donald Duck series, and now here in Silly Symphonies, where he was involved from the outset, first as an inker and then as penciller for Bucky Bug and several cartoon adaptations.

Merrill DeMaris — who’s probably most familiar as one of the main writers of Disney’s Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs animated feature film — is also represented in this book, along with Ted Osborne, who served as writer for many Silly Symphonies comics, teaming with Taliaferro. Osborne is perhaps better known for his efforts with Floyd Gottfredson, writing the Mickey Mouse dailies that Floyd illustrated, but he works as seamlessly with Taliaferro as he did with Gottfredson.

Rounding out the talent pool is Earl Duvall. He worked with Taliaferro in penciling the first five Bucky Bug strips, which Taliaferro inked. Duvall inked Gottfredson’s Mickey newspaper strips at the start of that run, and he also wrote Bucky’s Silly Symphonies Sundays after Taliaferro took total control of the artistic reins.

The same names keep appearing, don’t they? Taliaferro — Gottfredson — Duvall — Osborne. Along with the previously-released Mickeys, our Silly Symphonies books will help round out and represent this early period of Disney’s comics history.

Color proof of the first “Mickey Mouse Movies” feature. June 24, 1934.

Color proof of the first “Mickey Mouse Movies” feature. June 24, 1934.

Westfield Comics: Library of American Comics collections always have wonderful extras. What will readers find in this volume?

Canwell: Though I’m not writing it, we’ll have an Introductory essay by a recognized “Disneyologist” that will entertain and inform, which is one of the goals of all our text features. We’ll have a variety of rarely-seen artwork to run in conjunction with the article, and it’s especially fun to be including the large Mickey Mouse Movies “topper” panels that appeared in conjunction with Silly Symphonies during 1934-35. When these originally appeared, the theory was that kids could clip these out of the newspaper, paste it onto cardboard, push a pencil through the center, give it a spin, and see “flip book-style” animation. I assume no one wants to clip these out of our book, but those who’d like to see what the animations look like can visit this blog, where they spin into eternity! Notice that included in the Mickey Mouse movies is one devoted to The Wise Little Hen herself, plus co-star Peter Pig and two starring Donald Duck. These are great fun!

Westfield Comics: Any closing comments?

Canwell: We have lots of good stuff on tap for 2016, Roger. The next release in our Li’l Abner series, Volume 8, serves up a famous story about the fantastic little Kigmys, and I’ll be writing an article that offers some fascinating information about the feud between Abner‘s creator, Al Capp, and Ham Fisher, who wrote and drew Joe Palooka. Great comics and a terrific historical info makes for a pretty nifty package, I like to think!

Krazy Kat

Krazy Kat

New for next year, we also have two entries in our Essentials series that I’m tremendously excited about. I’m a great admirer of George Herriman, and I was practically jumping up and down when we green-lighted the one and only Krazy Kat as the subject of our eighth LOAC Essentials release. This will also be Volume One of a King Features Essentials sub-imprint we’re running to celebrate the start of King’s second century. This book will showcase the 1934 Kat dailies, one per page, and offer a fresh look at the magic that is the Kat, the Mouse, the Bull Pupp, and a seemingly-endless supply of doorniks. The Introduction to this book is already written, by Herriman scholar Michael Tisserand, and it’s a real winner.

After Krazy, our Essentials series is going to offer a taste of a strip long talked about, but rarely reprinted: Tim Tyler’s Luck! This strip began in 1928 and ran nearly seventy years, the brainchild of Lyman Young, the older brother of Chic, who gained a modest degree of fame producing a comic strip you may have heard of, called Blondie. Like Chic, Lyman used a string of assistants on Tim Tyler’s Luck, and we’ll be running a beefy continuity that spotlights work by arguably the most famous of those assistants, the young Alex Raymond!

Tim Tyler’s Luck from the end of Raymond's tenure

Tim Tyler’s Luck from the end of Raymond’s tenure

Raymond had assisted Chic Young on Blondie for a time, then shifted to assisting Lyman in the spring of 1932; by the start of 1933 he’s drawing most of the figures in the strip. This will be the first time a lengthy segment of Raymond’s stint on Tim Tyler’s Luck has been reprinted, making it the perfect opportunity for fans to watch how illustrator Matt Clark’s influence begins to permeates Raymond’s art as he develops characters who would serve as the visual prototypes for Flash Gordon and Dale Arden, among others. Since we already reprinted Raymond’s Blondie, it only made sense for us to reprint his major contributions to Tim Tyler’s Luck, as well!

There are other things percolating, as well, but I’ve yakked long enough as it is. Roger, I think the best thing I can do right now, on behalf of everyone at The Library of American Comics, is to wish you and all your customers a Happy Christmas (or whatever holiday they choose to observe) and the best of New Year’s! We hope to see you all in 2016 …


Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies Vol. 1



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