A small, quiet, rural town in the middle of Missouri is not the place one might expect to find a group of well known syndicated comic strip cartoonists (and one lowly MAD artist) gathered for a speaking engagement, but that’s just what happens every year around this time in Marceline, MO. Well, the lowly MAD artist doesn’t show up every year, but there is always a number of cartooning luminaries that speak, participate and in share their time and talents with attendees of the Walt Disney Hometown Toonfest.
Marceline might be the kind of sleepy little town that you ordinarily barely slow down through on your way from big city to big city, but it’s special in several ways. First, it’s special in the way that all similar small towns are… everyone knows everyone and the sense of community and family is tremendously strong. If the big cities and metro centers of this county are the bricks, these communities are the mortar of this nation. These people and communities like them are what makes America into what it is. The other thing that makes Marceline special is one of it’s past inhabitants, and what he took with him from Marceline to eventually share with the entire world. That Marceline resident was Walt Disney.
The Disney Family Home
Disney lived in Marceline from age 4 to 9, from 1906 until 1910. His family moved there from Chicago, the big city to the small town life of farming. Disney was never shy about how Marceline was a huge influence on him and the ideas and concepts he’d later apply to his films and life’s work. In 1938, Disney wrote:
“Everything connected with Marceline was a thrill to us… to tell the truth more things of importance happened to me in Marceline than have ever happened since – or are likely to in the future.”
There is much evidence of this, from the obvious Marceline design influences in Disneyland and Disneyworld, to the small town fascination that permeated Disney’s work in film and his theme park concepts. Disney was enthralled with the idea of small town America, and all that seems to have stemmed from the time he spent as a boy in this small railroad town in Missouri.
Each years since they celebrated Walt’s birthday in 2001, Marceline puts on a weekend event called the Walt Disney Hometown Toonfest, where they celebrate not only Disney’s life and his time in their town, but cartooning as an art form. The speakers that have graced the stage in the nostalgic Uptown Theater on Marceline’s Main St. would pack the house at any comics convention or big city symposium. Cartooning giants like Mike Peters (Mother Goose and Grimm, Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist), Lynn Johnston (For Better or Worse), Chris Browne (Hagar the Horrible), Ann Telnaes (Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist), Jim Borgman (Zits and another Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist), Tom Wilson Jr. (Ziggy) and many others over the years. That’ some serious cartooning star power.
The 2008 guest artists (L to R): Dave Coverly, Greg Evans, Jan Eliot,
Me, Michael Jantze, Disney “architectural miniatures” sculptor Dale Varner
This year’s ToonFest had another stellar lineup. Greg Evans (Luanne), Jan Eliot (Stone Soup), Dave Coverly (Speed Bump), Michael Jantze (The Norm and Jantze Studios) and my humble self, who these great talents acquiesced to slum with for the weekend. Seriously, though, what a great lineup of speakers. The speakers presented in the Uptown Theater, a landmark old school theater in the heart of Marceline’s Main St.
Me emceeing the show
I was honored to be the emcee of the speaking event. We presented twice, once on Friday to a theater full of high school kids, and once on Saturday to the general public.
First up was Greg Evans. I’ve met Greg on numerous occasions and his is one of the most soft spoken and pleasant guys you will ever meet. He’s also a smart and funny person and it’s easy to see why his strip, Luanne, is so successful. He talked about how he got into cartooning, and offered some great advice. One thing he said really stuck with me, and that was about how he struggled with getting syndicated for years. Basically he was trying to be too analytical about his subject matter, trying to hard to write a strip about something that he thought was different and filled a niche that was missing on the comic’s page. He realized later he was trying to write about things he knew nothing about. Once he started writing about what he knew (his teenage daughter gave him all the insight he needed about teenage girls) he created something that resonated with readers.
Jan Eliot, creator of Stone Soup, I had never really met before. I really enjoyed spending some time getting to know this wonderful lady. Cartooning is more than a bit of a boy’s club, but despite that when a woman cartoonist get’s a chance they often hit a homerun. Jan started her strip, which would eventually become syndicated as Stone Soup, when she was a single working mom trying to raise two daughters on her own. I was impressed by her perseverance as well as her work. Her strip is beautifully drawn and written. Some of her originals were on display at the cartoon art show, and she’s very old school doing the art with a dip pen and traditional tools. I still love that look. Her story was inspirational, and she’s a terrific person.
Dave Coverly, creator of Speed Bump, probably got the biggest laughs of the day. His single panel cartoon is laugh out loud funny. I had met him several times but never really got to talk with him much, so it was great hanging out and getting to know him a little. I told him over a beer later that his artwork impressed me greatly. It isn’t just that his concepts and gags are funny, because they are, but his drawings are funny. That’s a powerful combination. Sadly we do not get Speed Bump in any of our local papers, so that’s one I’ve subscribed to online. I won’t miss another day of it. Dave’s a great talent and I can see why he’s been nominated for “Cartoonist of the Year” by the National Cartoonist Society for the last 4 years. He’s going to take that ugly statue home in the next year or two, and well deserved.
Michael Jantze I have had the pleasure of being friends with for some years now. He’s been a speaker at our North Central Chapter meeting more than one, and we got to hang out at the Minnesota Fall Con one year ( I even took him to a Minnesota Twins game). He’s a very smart guy, and after he took his comic strip The Norm out of traditional syndication and online he’s been busy coming up with the next generation of comic strip media. He recognized that the traditional newspaper delivery format for comic strips is slowly dying, and that if comics are to survive into the 21st century they need a cost effective way to be electronically delivered to the next generations of readers. He demonstrated some of the concepts they’ve been working on, and the progression of ideas were fascinating. His studio’s “Audio Comics” are a blend of simple animatic animation, voice-over and design effects that keep the basic feel and delivery of a comic strip’s gags and pacing but become visually viable for delivery via the web or a cell phone. The future of comics unveiled in Marceline, MO!
The speakers do a Q & A after the presentations
Unfortunately the attendance at Toonfest is not exactly like the Olympics. These great speakers presented to a half filled theater, many of who were locals (who are of course welcome, but it’s out of towners we want to bring in). That’s really a shame. Marceline is not an easy place to get to (2 hours drive from the nearest commercial airport), but one would hope that line ups like these would bring in more interested people. There were some folks that traveled long distances to be there, however. There was one guy from Long Island NY, several people from Florida, a number from St. Louis and other somewhat nearby areas. I am sure they were not disappointed. I hope future years see more cartoon fans and cartoonists making the trek. It’s worth it.
On Saturday there was a parade down Main St., where all the speakers were “Grand Marshalls”.
After the Parade the guests artists all received these wonderful plaques with a small piece of the Walt Disney “Dreaming Tree” mounted on it.
The bubbly Megan presents me with my plaque
After the Saturday speaking program there was a ceremony out at the former Disney home and farm. On the property is a huge cottonwood tree Walt called “The Dreaming Tree” where he spent a lot of time just sitting and thinking, listening to the nearby train’s whistle and watch the sky wheel above. Each year saplings from the tree, which itself is not in the best of shape after 150 years or so of life, are planted by the guest cartoonists who are inducted into the “Order of PlantEars”, followed by a visit to Walt’s beloved barn, which he called “The Happy Place”.
The Dreaming Tree ceremony
The 2008 order of PlantEars inductees
Jan shows off her green thumb
The original barn disappeared after the Disney’s left Marceline, likely burned as firewood during the Great Depression, and this recreation was painstakingly built in the exactly spot. Inside are the signatures of thousands of Disney fans thanking Walt for what he gave to them and the world.
The Happy Place
We also squeezed in a meeting of our local chapter of the National Cartoonist Society, the North Central Chapter.
North Central Chapter members (L to R): Mike Edholm, Me, Cedric Honstadt,
Ted Goff, Paul Fell, Eric Scott, Scott Holmes
The fest itself has lots of activities for kids like the “Princess Tea” and other fun stuff. I had a great time and the Toonfest folks, especially Kaye Malins, Barbie Boyd and Debbie Foster (as well as everyone else), treat the visiting cartoonists like family and royalty. Thanks to them and to all the cartoonists who attended and who I got to spend time with… there were more than just the speakers. Like I said, great fun.
Special thanks to car pool pal Cedric Honstadt for some of the above pictures.
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