Sunday, November 18, 2018

Lou Scheimer: Creating the FILMATION Generation -- A Review

I picked this up during TwoMorrows' nearly month-long Black Friday Sale last November at a substantial discount and have been reading it off and on since it arrived, finishing it on Friday, 2018 Feb 23.  The bulk of the reading took place before basketball games and during half-times with me then finishing up certain chapters before bed.  Sometimes this turned out to be a real distraction, since I didn't want to stop reading even when the games started, especially when the subject covered a show that I was particularly fond of from childhood.  However, it wasn't just the shows that I was interested in by that point, I wanted to spend more time with Lou and hear what happened next in his life!  Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed this intimate and personal autobiography.

The book is primarily black and white with a small color section.  However, it came with a FREE digital version download that was in full color.  It would have been nice to have the print version be full color, but I can understand the need to keep costs down, and honestly, I prefer the regular matte paper versus the glossy color magazine style.  I think it is another testament to the compelling story that I wasn't deterred from reading a book about color cartoons in black and white.  Since I only read digital media on a PC (no hand held devices yet), it wouldn't have been the same reading experience for me on the screen.  Opening a physical book just connects you more with the material, I think.

Lou was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Russian and German Jews, which had immigrated to the US in the early to mid 1920s.  The first chapter is entitled, "Wherein My Father Punched Out Adolf Hitler Years Before Captain America Did (1928-1946)".  His experience of growing up Jewish in Pittsburgh is very engaging and was a great way to start the book, because it not only established important background, but it helped you get to know him more as a person, rather than just what he later did. That personal thread is throughout the whole book.  He talks about his time in post-WWII Japan and his courtship with Jay, who would become his beloved wife.  She was thought of as a shiksa by some in his family.  Choosing to marry a non-Jew, illustrates early-on his attitude of accepting people based on their character, regardless of their diversity label.

I believe the book was primarily constructed from interviews, since it has such a narrative style to it.  You really do feel that Lou is conversing with you the whole time. You learn of his passion for quality children's entertainment to mean something and have pro-social messages.  The trials and travails of the animation industry are recounted as well, along with his mostly successful (for FILMATION) but ultimately doomed efforts (for the industry) to keep the work stateside. But he doesn't gloss over his mistakes and regrets either.  He cusses at times and drinks too much on occasion, which caused him to forget to credit his friend Hal Sutherland during his Emmy acceptance for a Star Trek episode.  And when he mentions a person that was troublesome or a jerk, well he doesn't mince words even when he's trying to restrain himself from saying too much negative about them.

Andy Mangles' role in fact-checking (with help) Lou's tale and his reconstruction of the interviews is essential to making this book flow so well.  Many of the chapters, generally focusing on specific periods or years, foreshadow to future events later in the book, making this reader salivate for the next juicy morsel.  By the time it got to shows that I wasn't particularly familiar with or interested in, I was hooked because I still wanted to listen to Lou.  There is also an exhaustive amount of FILMATION facts and details. I think one could skim some portions that were more strictly business related without taking too much away, but it's also so entwined with his story that I'm only talking about isolated paragraphs here there, where numerous names are listed (kinda of what some people do when reading Numbers).

Lou's reflections on his life are bittersweet.  Just when FILMATION is doing its best year, things quickly change, which leads them to abandon the Saturday Morning networks, which had largely abandoned them already, to produce He-Man and She-Ra in syndication, certainly their most successful shows ever. However, their pioneer work on the weekday cartoon series phenomenon is quickly crowded out by a glut of such shows on the market. Then thanks to a vicious buyout by a company that only wanted their back catalog and not their studio, it's all over very abruptly not long after their 25th anniversary.  Lou's efforts to get back to work over the next 15 years isn't very fruitful at all.  His final thoughts on his legacy and life are Solomon-esque in their wisdom of ups and downs and what really matters at the end of it all.

My copy of the book is a second edition, published in 2015.  I didn't realize this, so I was shocked to learn (the day I finished the book) that Lou had already died in 2013, less than a year past the first edition (late 2012).  And here I was thinking of how nice it would be to meet with him at a convention someday.   I had seen the Lou Scheimer gallery at Pittsburgh's Toonseum on 2015 Jul 31 before attending an ApologetiX concert in Wexford, PA.  It was relatively small, but I immediately recognized the film cells from the cartoons.  Regrettably, the Toonseum closed its downtown doors just yesterday (as of this writing) on 2018 Feb 24.  It was a neat place.  I hope it comes back someday and that Lou's gallery becomes even more prominent.

I am certainly one of the FILMATION generation.  I grew up on these shows before I even started getting comics (and that may be a subject of a future post: TV's role in comics).  My favorite FILMATION shows (in no particular order) were/are STAR TREK: The Animated Series*, TARZAN of the APES**, FLASH GORDON*, BLACKSTAR, Lone Ranger, and the live-action SHAZAM*, ISIS*, and ARK II*.  I also remember watching Fat Albert and the Archies* on occasion.  The * represents DVD box sets that I'm very happy to have in my collection, since some of them are way too expensive these days.  The ** represents a recent purchase from a Canadian online site called RETROTVMEMORIES, so that I could get the remaining episodes of Tarzan.  (The one readily available only covers the first season's 16 episodes, missing 24 others.)  RetroTV is a good source of out-of-print material, but the quality is variable -- still better than watching bits and pieces on YouTube.  I can also recall the anticipation of wanting to watch Journey Back to Oz on the SFM Holiday Network, which I always seemed to miss.  After reading this book, I even have a strong desire to delve into He-Man and She-Ra someday.

Some of my Filmation boxsets (forgot to include Tarzan).

I've been blessed to be able to share some of these shows with my children. The music is incredible, the live-action acting is very authentic with great "after school special" style morals, and most of the stories are really great.

If you're a FILMATION fan of any of their material, this is a MUST READ.  And if you just want to get to know a guy who tried to do his best all his life, but didn't always succeed.  A creative person who struggled at the end, living past his "prime" years, but was eventually rewarded by the fans who appreciated his shows that shaped their lives, then this is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.  It really makes me think of all our favorite comic creators that had super hot streaks, but eventually fell out of favor for various reasons.  We don't always get to know them personally or their stories, Lou's story is a good representation for ALL of them.

BONUS -- Here is the ISIS commission I got from Jerry Ordway this year at the Baltimore Comic-Con (according to him his first drawing of the TV version).