Check out this weird comic I found
Ah, the "Disneyana" section. At least in the LA area, every good used bookstore has one, typically full of dust balls and shelves that have no discernible order to them. At worst, they're like kids' nooks that are mysteriously popular with a bizarre succession of graying old men that pours into them, but at best they're as worthy of investigation as the comics section. And highly as I'd recommend the massive Illusion of Life and Art of Walt Disney monographs, or Walt Stanchfield's indispensable Drawn To Life cartooning master course, or Abbeville Press's tabloid-sized hardcover reprints of Floyd Gottfredson's exuberant, riveting work on the Mickey Mouse newspaper strip, I just found something that's got 'em beat all hollow.
Most Disney books above a certain age have a kind of enigma about them. Missing copyright information, no authors credited, foreign languages employed at the drop of a hat... I guess these things are always weird, but I've yet to see one that surpasses Walt Disney Magic Moments as a sheerly strange, beautiful object. It's a transcription of ten cartoons from Disney's first decade into the comics form, a collection of screencaps pasted up into neat twelve-panel grids, kind of "retroactive storyboards". Occasionally a panel is blown up to 4 times the regular size for some variation; not necessarily because it's a particularly good or important panel, but just because it keeps things interesting and makes the page design look a little better. Strangest of all, we're led through the stories by captions running below each panel. Sometimes hyperbolic, sometimes dry and verbose, decidedly self-aware and punctuated not by their own rhythm but by the breaks in the panels, the supposedly-written-by-Walt-himself text spots function more as a running commentary on the drawings than actual narration.
You know what, let me paste a bit of a story from the book up here so you can see what I'm talking about before I get any further. Go ahead and take a look (sorry, the book's too big to fit a whole page on my scanner so these are split into top and bottom halves):
Pretty odd, right? The panel-to-panel transitions are so un-kinetic, so obviously not intended to be seen without their bridging motion sequences that it hardly even feels like comics at all. And honestly, I don't know -- this is "sequential art" for sure, but repurposed from another medium, and done so in a presentational, fixed mode that makes no concession to the form whatsoever. A lot of people talk about widescreen hero comics as being "movies on paper", but this thing takes the cake as far as I'm concerned. It's almost a purely theoretical comic, taking up the medium with no knowledge (or at least employment) of its agreed-upon grammar or its storytelling strengths. Look into these panels: the characters move like crazy, but there's nothing there to pull you forward or pop them out at you. Ub Iwerks's drawings are of the screen and for the screen, pinned into their boxes with total unawareness that there's a next one to get us moving on to.
When this stuff moves at all, it moves slow. If you can ignore the text and just trail your eyes across it's obviously got a better flow than comics, with the characters' every motion telegraphed and played out in perfectly logical, naturalistic increments. But still, man, seven panels for Mickey to light his cigarette! No movement smacks or jars, no scenes snagging with drama or cutting out to skip ahead -- it's like "real-time" comics, the action unrolling seamlessly in front of us with absolutely nothing hidden or held back. There's no "point of impact" to be found, but rather a long playing out of every motion, every little trick and line of dialogue. It's almost a fetishistic presentation of these cartoons' content, with all the little absurdities and grotesques of the animated world cross-sectioned and served up for scrutiny and study.
Material this abnormal basically always has things to teach its readers about comics. It's devastatingly good, snappy cartooning if you skip to every third panel along or so. The original medium frees it from the need to follow any real-world physics, offering interesting possibilities for the still-image form that keeps itself more grounded in realism so the audience can follow along. It's a mode of pure cartoon that's pretty foreign to comics, with all the exaggerated motion and body language shown and fully played out rather than just implied in single frames. And there's a bevy of little primers on what not to do, on how comics should necessarily differ from animation -- though in just this one book it's still fascinating to see that slowness, those long sequences against one single background, the characters appearing and disappearing with no explanation, or cut off for a panel by the borders of the frame.
And then there are the captions, forever separated from the story they're telling, forever in the margins, flailing around in the printed page's absence of sound, abjected from the rich possibilities of comics' synthesis of picture and word. Magic Moments, in its marking out of explicitly different spheres for the writing and the drawing to operate in, most resembles the endless narration-ing of Golden Age action comics mixed with the studied "picture novel" approach of Jim Steranko's Chandler. As naturalistic as the motion of the players in their little screens is, the captions seem absolutely bent on pointing up their artificiality, taking you out of the story in every way from sudden breaks into screenwriting-style dialogue attributing ("MICKEY MOUSE: Hurrah! Hello, you all... distinguished audience") to commenting on the artifice of the layouts themselves ("this is another one of those helpful close-up panels"). It's writing to make Stan Lee's most awkwardly referential moments seem downright elegant, but it has a point to make about the practice of "writing" comic books: when the artist is on a high enough level, when the illusion of life is there in full, there's no room or need for words.
However, the writing's tendency to go against the grain of simple storytelling gives this book another side, one probably more successful than its masquerade as comics. I've seen storyboard sequences published everywhere from Timm and Dini's Batman Animated to those hardcover "art of superhero movies" books no one buys to Dash Shaw's Unclothed Man collection (which does a really good job of filling in some of that moat between comics and animation). But this is really so much better: fully developed, final pieces from master cartoon artists in their chosen medium, arrayed in big spreads on massive pages for us to glory over. The art's so often secondary to the story in the cartoons themselves, and it's nice that the comics version lets it go the other way around, slows it down and gives us a chance to really look at everything. There's beautiful artwork that should interest any comics fan on every page of this book, hell, there's even a few unreleased Dali background paintings in the introduction, and Magic Moments' use of the comics form allows us to soak in them as long and deep as we possibly can. In fact, it might be better to view this as a visual history of Disney's early years. Or a very strangely written art book with a quirky page design that simply has a lot to do with comics. (Hey, if we can read Gary Panter's stuff that way...) But regardless of formal quibbles, storytelling problems, mysterious origin, everything else, this book is full of gorgeous panel after gorgeous panel, and that alone makes it worth the time.