Episode 38: Hamid Rahmanian

Join Whitney Grace as she speaks with artist Hamid Rahmanian, who is the director, writer, and creator of Feathers of Fire.  Rahmanian’s Feathers of Fire is a brilliant, animated shadow puppet stage show adapted from the Persian epic The Shahnameh.

Toon-In Talk Episode 37: Niki Smith

Whitney Grace interviews graphic novel writer and artist Niki Smith about her new LGBTQA fantasy novel, The Deep and Dark Blue.  Whitney not loves the Niki Smith’s graphic novel, but the pandemic has gotten to her mental health in the form of delusions and illusions of grandeur.

Toon-In Talk Episode 36: Rob Paulsen

Rob Paulsen takes some time from his busy voice acting schedule to spend some time with host Whitney Grace and things get weird.

Lewis and Tolkien Have Some Explaining To Do

I adore fantasy books!  I read at least one or more fantasy books a month.  As much as I love the stories themselves, I enjoy learning about the history behind literary fantasy.  Children’s fantasy books are particularly interesting to me, because it’s a genre where I plan to eventually publish books.  (Notice the plural there.  I’m ambitious.)  

Classic children’s literature is dominated by books written by primarily British authors.  Think about it.  There’s Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Winnie the Pooh, Lord of the Rings, Peter Rabbit, Chronicles of Narnia, and Harry Potter.  The only non-British writer to leave a huge impact on English children’s literature is L. Frank Baum with his The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  Slate recently published an article: “The Enchantments of Escape” where children’s literature expert Maria Sachiko Cecire explores a unique side of children’s fantasy history.

Cecire wrote a new book called Re-Enchanted: The Rise of Children’s Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century, where she:

“The professor of literature at Bard College steps back to put the genre in context, looking at the way 20th century authors of what she calls the “Oxford School” used children’s fantasy as a means to preserve a sense of magic inside a modern world they saw as increasingly hostile to belief.”

The Oxford School is a reference to famous fantasy authors C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and their brethren when they all worked at the University of Oxford.  During their tenure at Oxford, they were concerned with reforming the school’s English curriculum and writing fantasy books.  Lewis and Tolkien were of the firm belief that fantasy was beneficial for students to learn, but they also wanted modern literature, including fantasy, to receive the same respect as classical and medieval literature.  

Like all people, Lewis and Tolkien were products of their time, but they were also forward-thinking in their writing.  The idea that fantasy is beneficial has been preached by both creative and scientific individuals.  Albert Einstein has the best quote related to fantasy through the venue of fairytales: “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” 

For a man who changed the foundation of modern physics and promoted logic and reason, he understood that imagination was the key to creating new ideas and theories.  As brilliant as Einstein was, he also cheated on and abandoned his wife and children.  On top of that, he never felt remorse for the death of his first child, who was born out of wedlock.  

We hardly hear about Einstein’s promiscuous relationships; his positive accomplishments outweigh his faults in the zeitgeist.  While Einstein was a genius, he was also a human with faults.  Cecire investigated Tolkien and Lewis’s’ faults as well, exposing little known facts about these pillars of fantasy.  The negative aspects of Tolkien and Lewis have been also been published, but like Einstein, weren’t discussed much.  As with many people in history, these negative aspects refer to racism:

“There’s a big discourse around Tolkien and Lewis, a lot of discussion about whether Tolkien was anti-Nazi—which he was, but in large part, because he was mad at what they did with his beloved Teutonic mythology! [Laughs] Well, I’m joking about that, but in part. … And the discussion about Lewis, about whether he’s against colonialism—which he certainly was, explicitly, but he also wrote pretty profoundly racist things like the quote you just read, about non-Western people.”

Tolkien’s and Lewis’s views are definitely a facepalm and sweat drop moment.  It’s like dealing with old, racist relatives who are well beyond caring what they say and others think.  Cecire acknowledges that Lewis and Tolkien were men of their times, the nineteenth century.  These thoughts were common amongst people in those days, it’s not an excuse for ignorance, but an explanation.

As these fantasy authors are beloved around the globe, Cecire has difficulty teaching her students to objectively critique them.  One approach to critique is seeing it through the racism lens.  The interviewer brought up an interesting perspective: 

“But I have this feeling that some—not all, but some—people who virulently defend fantasy narratives like Lord of the Rings from any critique do it because they crave that feeling of “racial innocence,” as Robin Bernstein calls it. Like, the stories’ background whiteness is part and parcel, for them, of that childlike feeling of being totally enchanted by a tale—losing yourself in it.”

Cecire responded with this:

“There’re so many levels to enchantment in reading these texts. A lot of it has to do with sublime experiences, and this feeling of being connected to something bigger than yourself, but also being special within that framework. But often that specialness is a form of privilege, and that privilege comes at the expense of other people, and if you pause and think about it, it’s really uncomfortable really quickly—or if you don’t come from that background and you’re reading these kinds of texts, maybe you figure it out with a shock at a certain point, or you detect it early on and are not interested in these texts at all.”

Now that is a thought-provoking and critical way to read children’s fantasy books.  These books are meant to entertain, offer escapism, and wonder. Being as Lewis and Tolkien are more modern than other fantasy writers, such as Barrie, Milne, Carroll, Baum, etc., and still have stereotypical racial portrayals of non-European.  Does that make it excusable, though?  No, it only shows these esteemed authors are as human as Einstein and the rest of us.

I also interpret this statement as saying that non-European ethnic readers would not identify with these characters and believe they lack that specialness to belong or even visit these worlds.  That is definitely true in part, but I also disagree.  British children’s fantasy literature somehow transcends so many negative barriers.  At the same time, these barriers provoke discussion and inspiration for new interpretations of these same stories.  How many times has Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan been retold all over the world?  Harry Potter has inspired many knockoffs written in various non-European languages and if Rowling’s work was in the public domain, there would be a lot more.

Cecire is exactly right, but also wrong.  The experience of the individual reader does not speak for the entire group and vice versa.  She did follow up that statement about ethnicity with another eye-opening thought:

“And I think that’s one of the big challenges around this material—to recognize how often hierarchies play into the kinds of pleasure that comes out of these texts. I guess every person has to figure out how they relate to it. You know, eventually, I realized I do not want feudalism to return to this land!”

WOW!  Now that thought is something I never considered!  Cecire is making a poignant argument that fantasy heroes often become rulers or leaders and/or support monarchies/feudalism.  Being fed a steady diet of fairytales and Disney, I’m unfazed by the idea of monarchies in fantasy worlds. Without guilt, I also admit that I’ve written many stories with monarchies as the predominant form of government.  It’s the romanticism of the old days, which  is what Cecire says Lewis and Tolkien did with their writings.

Exploring Lewis’s and Tolkien’s works, their main characters are ordinary people, but their heroes’ journeys make them royalty or “the chosen one.”  The kingdoms or peasants bow to their newly crowned rulers or the hero.  The subjects are written to love the specialness of the heroes, but it gives the illusion that in order to be a hero or “save the world” you need to enact a monarchy or be a leader.  It reinforces the old-fashioned hierarchal systems that many fantasy readers are victimized by and turn to fantasy to escape.  

That’s why we need to press forward.  We respect the classics, thank them for the inspiration, and hail the new fantasy writers.  They are working with new ideas to break with old ways of thinking and continuing the traditions of Lewis and Tolkien, but without the embarrassing bits (hopefully, fifty years from now the zeitgeist will change as will the definition of political correctness).

Episode 35: Michael Dooley

Oh, dear!  I did it again!  I went on an unintended hiatus, but I’m back and raring to get the podcast rolling again.  In episode 35, I speak with Michael Dooley is a professor at the Pasadena Art Center.  I’ve guest lectured at his class on Lotte Reiniger.  He’s one of the coolest behind the scenes professionals I’ve spoken with because he’s a true geek.  Beyond his geekdom, he’s a writer, photographer, comic historian, and designer.

Episode 34: Chris Prynoski

Whitney Grace is digging through her queue of old new stock interviews and pulls this beauty out with Chris Prynoski!  Chirs Prynoski is the founder and head of Titmouse Inc., an independent animation studio that’s been making a name for itself since 2000.  Titmouse Inc. has worked on a variety of cartoons for Disney, Adult Swim, and Netflix as well as feature films Nerdland, Teen Titans Go, and the new Foxy Trotter and Hanazuki.

Episode 33: Jerry Beck

Join Whitney Grace in this blast down memory lane with an old episode from her now defunct first podcast.  In this episode, Whitney interviews renowned animation historian Jerry Beck.  They delve into Beck’s career and animation history.

Either Me or WordPress Sucks…

I left for the New York Comic Con all proud with myself because I had edited two episodes, uploaded them, and posted about them on my website.  I scheduled the posts and podcasts, so everything would be released as I intended.

During my absence, I checked on Toon-In Talk and the website wasn’t updated.

What madness was this?  Apparently I had forgotten to write the posts in my mad rush to the Big Apple.   I can’t blame myself, because I was for the New York Comic Con and to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.  Both had their pros and cons and I would attend both again.  I’ll be attending the New York Comic Con again, but I don’t think I’ll get a second chance at the Harry Potter Broadway show.  It’s way too expensive, yet a delightful immersion second only in status to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  Which is cheaper?

In other words, my bad!  Unless WordPress deleted my posts, weirder stuff has happened.

Michael Uslan Made Batman Fandom His Career

Batman is the arguably the most relatable superhero for humans.  He doesn’t have super powers, he’s relies entirely on his brain and honed skills, and his grief stricken backstory makes everyone shed tears.  The only thing “super and powerful” about Batman is his bottomless fortune.   We could consider that superpower if you refer to the 2017 Justice League movie script.  Flash asks Ben Affleck Batman what his superpower is and Affleck Batman replies, “I’m rich.”

I’m a Batman fan and one of my goals is to write either a Batman animated movie or a comics story arc.  My dedication to the Dark Knight pales in comparison to Michael Uslan, who is probably the ultimate Batman fan and responsible for making the Caped Crusader part of the modern zeitgeist.  Check out this Mental Floss article, “The Boy Who Saved Batman.”

Ulsan has been a Batman fan since he learned to read from his older brother’s comic books.  He amassed a huge collection of 30,000 books that consumed his parents garage.  He eventually sold 20,000 of his books to pay for his wedding and college education.  His first claim to fame was becoming the first professor of a college-accredited comic book course.  I wish I had access to his syllabus!

Ulsan so loved Batman that he wanted to buy the rights to the character and make a movie restoring the character from his campy Adam West days.  After earning a law degree, Ulsan worked in United Artists’s legal department.  Through sheer determination and persistence, he persuaded a production team to buy the Batman film rights for $50.000 in 1979.  Ulsan’s plans for a Batman movie languished in Hollywood for years, which is nothing new for any creative property.

Ulsan needed a steady cash flow to keep his Bat dream alive, so he

As the clock ticked, Uslan grasped for salable ideas. Then one day, he had an epiphany: What about dinosaurs from outer space?The kid-friendly lightning bolt resulted in Dinosaucers, a 1987 animated television series that provided just enough cash to get by.

Come the late 1980s, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns was published and reinvigorated interest in the Caped Crusader.  Ulsan’s Batman producing partners were attached to Warner Brothers, whileTim Burton had finished directing Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and was about to film Beetlejuice with Michael Keaton.  Burton asked screenwriter Sam Hamm (also a Batman fan) to work on a script inspired by Miller’s work and finally the project got the AOK.

Batman directed by Tim Burton, starring Michael Keaton as the Bat, Jack Nicklson as the Joker, Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale, and Michael Ulsan as a producer premiered on June 23, 1989 and quickly became that year’s summer blockbuster and more:

Batman’s cultural impact was enormous. In November, Uslan watched the Berlin Wall fall on CNN and saw a boy in the wreckage wearing a Batman hat. “This had become more than just a movie,” he writes. “It was, indeed, revolutionary.” In North America, the film was the highest-grossing movie of 1989.

Ulsan has been a producer on every Batman movie since 1989, including the Christian Bale Dark Knight Trilogy.  

Professional fans are are the ones who truly make franchises successful.  When a fan like Ulsan gets their hands on a property they have loved since childhood, they can do some serious wonders with it.


Episode 32: Mathew Klickstein

I’m back and done explaining about the current state of my mental health.  It’s actually doing pretty well, at least the voices tell me so.  FYI, if if you aren’t aware I have a dark sense of humor, particularly at my own expense, because I find it hilarious.  (If you didn’t catch on, that means I don’t have voices in my head. Unicorns and llamas are another story.)

Give me a round of applause and praise me to the high heavens, because I finished episode 32!  Whoopee!

Beat that depression!

This interview is with my fellow writer Mathew Klickstein, who has been on Toon-In Talk before to discuss his book Slimed!: An Oral History of Nickelodeon.  In episode 32, Mat has returned to talk about his newest book (at least it was new in 2018 when I recorded the interview) Springfield Confidential.

Mat wrote Springfield Confidential with former lead Simpsonswriter Mike Reiss, who also went to Harvard, headed the National Lampoon, and also writes children’s books.  Mat and Mikes’ book digs into the history of America’s longest running sitcom The Simpsons and reveals secrets, stories, and humor behind the show.

You’ll notice I didn’t write show notes for episode 32.  I’ve never liked writing show notes, so taking Mat’s advice I stopped doing it.  All right!  I am making myself happier about making my podcast.