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Book Reviews: 'Not Just Cartoons: Nicktoons!', 'The Art of Bee Movie' and 'The Hanna-Barbera Treasury'

Andrew Farago cracks open three new books from Jerry Beck to see if they stack up to the high standard of his previous work.

In Not Just Cartoons: Nicktoons! author Jerry Beck leaves the talking to the creators and producers of each program, and, not surprisingly, the more innovative the animator, the more interesting and off-the-wall his commentary is.

I don't know for a fact that Jerry Beck is the hardest-working man in animation, but I'm hard pressed to think of another contender for that title who matches Beck's recent output. In addition to overseeing the indispensable Cartoon Brew animation news blog and serving as a consultant on practically every major historical animated DVD release (the highly recommended Popeye, Woody Woodpecker and Looney Tunes sets among them), Beck somehow found the time in his schedule to write three art books for late 2007 release.

Not Just Cartoons: Nicktoons! provides a behind-the-scenes look at Nickelodeon Studios, one of the most prolific and influential producers of animation in the past two decades. As Cyma Zarghami, president of Nickelodeon/MTVN Kids and Family Group, explains in the foreword, children's animation was a neglected market in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and Nickelodeon set out to fill that void.

And that void was filled with thousands of hours of programming, spanning more than 30 individual series, several spin-off feature films, best-selling DVD collections and one of the biggest tween-age merchandising juggernauts this side of the Disney Channel.

Beck leaves the talking to the creators and producers of each program, and, not surprisingly, the more innovative the animator, the more interesting and off-the-wall his commentary is. John Kricfalusi's matter-of-fact comments like "Why don't we make cartoons the real way, like back in the days when they didn't use scripts?" and "If you have to explain everything in words, you're not making a cartoon, you're writing a novel, and you're in the wrong business" are some of the boldest artistic statements in the book, while later Nickelodeon animators tend to make safer pronouncements, such as Steve Oedekerk's vague comment about the new series Barnyard, "I'm a big believer in solid input wrapped up in fun."

Beck's very thorough text provides readers with all they would want to know about the production of Bee Movie. The reproduction of production art in the book is top notch, but do we really need this many bee drawings?

While Ren & Stimpy's mission statement included recapturing everything that made cartoons of the past work so well, other early Nicktoons set forth to deliberately move away from what had come before. Jim Jinkins's Doug made use of an unconventional palette and sophisticated plotting that was unlike the material in previous children's television cartoons, and Klasky-Csupo's Rugrats represented a deliberate break from the accepted aesthetic style of young children's programming.

These three initial series set the tone for Nickelodeon's entire output. With Ren Höek, Angelica Pickles and Doug Funnie as parents, it's no wonder that more than a few ugly babies turned up in subsequent generations of Nicktoons. The Klasky-Csupo influence in particular is especially noticeable when one is confronted with the network's entire output. Given that Nickelodeon stakes its entire existence on generating output that's appealing to both children and parents, it's surprising that it so often goes for a deliberately "ugly" aesthetic that eschews traditional cartoon cuteness.

The book itself doesn't dig too deep when it comes to finding out just what makes Nickelodeon's animators tick, and readers will find very little axe-grinding contained within this volume's green-slime-infused covers. According to the creators' testimonials that lead off each chapter, there seems to be a universal acknowledgment that Nickelodeon provides a fun, nurturing environment, and allows its animators a rare degree of creative control and freedom so they can produce their best possible work. Events such as John Kricfalusi's acrimonious and very public split with Nickelodeon are ignored entirely, which is probably to be expected in a book that relies so heavily on the studio's cooperation and input. The overall design of the book is, appropriately enough, bright, big and flashy, which suits the concept art, cels, paintings and storyboards reproduced inside, and should appeal to just about anyone in Nickelodeon's target audience.

Of less interest to the casual fan is The Art of Bee Movie, which includes a foreword by the film's star, co-writer and producer, Jerry Seinfeld. His introduction explains the humble origins of the project, which began as an offhand comment made to Steven Spielberg over dinner. "There was a little lull in the conversation, and literally just to fill it, I said, 'What about a movie about bees called Bee Movie?'" A few years and thousands of man-hours later, the result hit theaters in fall 2007 to solid ticket sales and lukewarm reviews, and the entire experience is captured in this deluxe hardcover from Chronicle Books.

Beck's very thorough text provides readers with everything that they could possibly want to know about the production of Bee Movie. Animators discuss the logic behind every aspect of the film's design, from the color scheme and the geometric, hexagonal nature of the bee architecture to the inherent difficulties in radical shift in P.O.V. from the bees' world to our own. Spotlight quotes from those involved in the production are liberally included amidst the artwork, letting non-animators know just exactly what they're seeing on each page, and why they should care.

The reproduction of production art in the book is top-notch, and as always, Chronicle Books does a great job with the overall layout and book design. Unfortunately -- always the danger with a project like this -- there is an overwhelming sameness to digital animation art when presented in a single volume. Page after page of amber-hued hexagons and computer-rendered bee buildings manage to make the art of computer animation feel increasingly dull and static over the course of 160 pages. Even the storyboards presented in the book are digital images, creating a feeling of distance between the reader and the final product, which should not be the intended result for a project like this.

On the other hand, much of the hand-drawn concept art included in the book looks great, especially next to the often monotonous final digital art. After 100 pages of backgrounds, furniture studies and lighting tests, it's a real treat to see some high-quality, organic pencil drawings from the likes of Carlos Grangel, Nico Marlet and Art Director Christophe Lautrette. Michael Isaak's "Parade Development Art," featuring a series of funny and imaginative designs for parade floats, stands out as the strangest and most oddly enjoyable spread in the book, more closely resembling a stack of National Lampoon comics than a collection of sight gags from a Dreamworks movie.

Bee Movie isn't a bad book, though, and it might very well be the best possible book that one could assemble given the subject matter, but its very existence prompts me to do my best Seinfeld impression and ask, "What's the deal with this book? Does anybody really need 200 pages of bee drawings?"

The most rewarding of Jerry Beck's latest trio of books is The Hanna-Barbera Treasury, which plays to his love and knowledge of the medium.

The most rewarding of the trio of books, not surprisingly, is the one that draws upon the longest and deepest history, playing to Beck's love and knowledge of the medium. The Hanna-Barbera Treasury starts off with an overview of the careers of William Hanna and Joe Barbera, from their initial team-up as fledgling animators at MGM studios, through their unprecedented success in creating original cartoon programming for every major television network.

The company history is followed up with a look at the process of animation itself, providing a refresher course for experts and a crash course in terminology for those readers who don't know background paintings from background music. Also included in this section is a look at the voice actors who brought life to so many of the classic Hanna-Barbera characters, including a great selection of rarely seen photos of Daws Butler, Don Messick, and the principal cast of The Flintstones, among others.

With the stage properly set, Beck dives into the heart of this collection, the Hanna-Barbera treasury itself. Twenty-four of Hanna-Barbera's most successful cartoons are explored in the book, from their first big hit, Tom and Jerry, to their most popular creation, Scooby-Doo. The text provides readers with an overview of each series, along with little-known trivia and appreciations from industry professionals including Mark Evanier (Garfield and Friends) and John Kricfalusi. From ratings smash Huckleberry Hound to the little-remembered Peter Potamus, every major Hanna-Barbera character from the 1940s to the 1960s gets his turn in the spotlight.

Where the book really excels, and enters firmly into "must-have" territory, is in the amazing collection of artwork. Everything that a Hanna-Barbera fan could possibly want appears in this book. Storyboards, unused character designs, cel and background set-ups, model sheets and color guides are reproduced throughout, which would be enough to satisfy most fans; but Beck and his crew went the extra mile and included dozens of rarities and oddities as well. Full-color photographs of Huckleberry Hound ViewMaster slides, a Mister Jinks bubble bath container (accompanied by Pixie and Dixie, of course), the official Yogi Bear comic books (including the cover to the classic "Yogi Bear Visits the U.N.") and the Jonny Quest card game are just a small fraction of the nostalgia-inducing images to be found in this collection.

As if that weren't enough, the treasury contains over a dozen replica inserts, reproducing all of the great Hanna-Barbera stuff you didn't even realize you were missing in your life, from a Gold Key Magilla Gorilla comic book to master animator Iwao Takamoto's essential guide, "Seven Steps: How to Build Your [Flintstones] 'Dream House.'" The sheer amount of material reproduced in this book is astounding, and any fan of classic Hanna-Barbera animation (which includes just about anyone who's watched television from 1957 to the present) will want to add this to his or her library.

Not Just Cartoons: Nicktoons! text and interviews by Jerry Beck, designed by Nickelodeon Brand Group. New York, NY: Melcher Media, 2007. 280 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1-59591-143-1; ISBN-10: 1-595910-43-3 ($40.00).

The Art of Bee Movie; by Jerry Beck with a foreword by Jerry Seinfeld. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 2007. 160 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0-8118-5951-6; ISBN-10: 0-8118-5951-7 ($40.00).

The Hanna-Barbera Treasury: Rare Art and Mementos from your Favorite Cartoon Classics; by Jerry Beck, with a foreword by Fred Siebert. San Rafael, CA: Insight Editions, an imprint of Palace Press International, 2007. 160 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1-933784-28-1; ISBN-10: 1-933784-28-8 ($45.00).

Andrew Farago is the gallery manager and curator of San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum. He is the creator of the weekly online comic serial The Chronicles of William Bazillion.