The Comic Book History of Animation (#1 – 5) – Fred Van Lente

3 out of 5

Overall rating aside, these 5-issue history books (and the Action Philosophers series that preceded them) are incredible undertakings and accomplishments by writer Fred Van Lente and artist Ryan Dunlavey. Despite what I’ll be criticizing, the amount of information that’s covered and visualized in an entertaining manner is staggering, not to mention the amount of research and decision making it must involve to cherry pick the best facts the bring forward, and the most concise way to show them. Fred’s writing is very much key to this, as he finds a tone that is relatively impartial without at all being dry; funny without taking away from the subject matter; and also does not avoid “bad” information when dealing with the histories of such people as Walt Disney, or John Lasseter.

That said, this is a huge, huge chunk of stuff and context to cover in this amount of page space, and it’s not a clean, linear narrative, especially when you expand the scope internationally. In addition, there’s some irony to putting this in the cartoonish style of Dunlavey, as essentially reducing the many evolutions of animation into one form (despite Ryan’s fun visual riffs, like drawing Disney with Mickey Mouse ears) makes it rather bland.

And that’s essentially where this series comes up short – it’s too much for five, regular-sized books, and it’s a topic that might be better served by actual photo reference with Dunlavey supporting that, versus all translated into a cast of caricatures. The tail end of the run works best, writing-wise, because Van Lente is able to shape the story around some particular figures – Disney; Miyazaki; Lasseter. But in the middle three issues, when things become very, very muddled with multiple studios and styles and industry ups and downs, the thread is incredibly tangly, and we jump all around names and places to try to find all the puzzle pieces to make sense of things, with additional asides to account for technological advances and historical context that will make the genre’s progress make more sense. This stuff is never uninteresting, but it starts feeling closer to a textbook rattling of facts versus this being framed as an exciting (and educational) story. There’s also a bit of hand waiving when it comes to transitioning from hand-drawn animation to computer graphics – the opening issue almost seems to be wholly setting CGI aside, but it’s surely necessary to cover it; when we circle back around to it in the fifth issue, some of the closing sentiments offered to link the two methods fall a little flat, which is where the sense comes from that more page space overall could’ve maybe evened the weight.

As to the art, Dunlavey is tasked with turning everything into stretch and squish goofiness, which is no small matter, and there’s the cute decision to start in black and white with spot colors and add more color as we get into more modern times. But both of these things ultimately impair the information delivery: Dunlavey’s art is clean and readable in black and white, for sure, but this isn’t really a book that benefits from limited color beyond that cuteness, and the style is not splash pages and dynamic layouts – it’s a grid, and it’s all rather flat perspective. And so it gets a little visually stale until we have more color going on. Additionally, it starts to feel really weird that all of the different animators we discuss have their unique looks reformatted into Dunlavey’s. I’m sure it’s cost prohibitive to get rights to adding actual images in here, or would up the production time on the book, and there’s been an established style to these series already that doesn’t involve real references, but nonetheless: if you haven’t seen the cartoons being discussed, Ryan does an adequate job of including visual nods to them, but it’s still, like, 99% Dunlavey, and thus – I’m sorry to say – doesn’t do the works being discussed full justice, even just in terms of assisting the narration.

But this doesn’t mean this isn’t a series worth reading. To someone who has seen a selection of this stuff, you have the references in your head, and I have to imagine that there are things to learn (or be pleasantly reminded of) across the five issues, guaranteeing you walk away with something new on your list to read or watch or rewatch. I’m knocking Ryan’s art as it relates to the presentation, but that’s not the same as it being “bad,” and he definitely gets consistent chuckles from the way he decides to present people or situations. And for those new to most of it, while it probably gets both overwhelming – it’s a lot of info – and underwhelming – not having the first-hand references – the same overall positives are there: even with just a passing interest in the format, I’d bet a reader emerges having learned a fair amount, and wanting to check out what was being discussed. And from a teaching point of view, having taught a pupil (a reader in this case) even one fact, and having encouraged them to learn more on their own – that would seem like a mission accomplished.