Remembering Robert J. Walsh

Robert J. Walsh died last month. This is sad news.

I had the pleasure of meeting Rob for lunch in Los Angeles three years ago, and I’m going to jump to the middle of the story here for some levity and type three important words: Guitar-shaped pool.

But let’s start at the beginning.

In 1983, G.I. Joe, a TV cartoon, debuted. Music by the talented Johnny Douglas. In 1984, more G.I. Joe aired, music by Douglas as well as Rob Walsh. (Why the addition? Read my book to find out!) Rob wrote and composed a lot of music for Marvel Productions (that’s the animation company in Los Angeles, separate from the comics publisher in NY), and man, did it sound great. One of the points I wish to make over and over about the G.I. Joe (and Transformers!) cartoons is that they were great because the producers in New York had high standards and spent money. They wanted these shows to be great. It’s not just G.I. Joe fans really love G.I. Joe and their nostalgia elevates that show. The show was great. Can’t tell the difference? Just watch most American TV animation from the 1970s. That was the landscape into which G.I. Joe was born. Things were bad and then they got better. Music was a part of this. Johnny Douglas (who died in 2003, so no mourning over him today) and Rob Walsh made that music.

After Carl Stalling died, Walsh scored for Friz Freleng’s later Pink Panther work, and then he made a bunch of music for Marvel. I figured Rob’s involvement in writing a library of cues that were used for dozens of episodes of Real American Hero was worth a paragraph or two in my book, so I needed set up an interview.

We spoke by phone in the summer of 2015. I got a few great facts and quotes I knew I would work into my book. But I was going to be in Los Angeles soon after, and was there any chance we could meet in person? Part of this is elementary. It’s nice to shake someone’s hand and put a real face to a voice, and I could follow up with additional questions in the moment. Rob’s website mentioned a guitar-shaped swimming pool, which I jokinging said I wanted to see. This had been described online in a biographical section of one of Rob’s websites (he owned a few music-related businesses).

One of the amazing aspects about researching and writing this book is that I get to occasionally witness history. I don’t mean that to sound grand. History was finding a dusty 35mm print of My Little Pony: The Movie in a box (two boxes, actually) under a desk in the back closet of Sunbow Entertainment in July of 1998. No one in the office cared, but it was a shock to me. Before I visited Rob, he’d announced a year or three earlier that he’d made a deal with Hasbro and a record label to release some of his 1980s cartoon music. By the time I was standing in front of him, he was actively remastering it from mag reels, digitizing the original tracks, cleaning them up, and adjusting them in Pro Tools. We met for lunch, talked about recording this music all those years ago, his trouble releasing a CD of X-Men music, and his excitement for the release of the ’80s material. I had taken a cab, so we jumped in his car and drove just a mile down the road to his house. There, I saw the kinds of props, instruments, and trophies that one expects to see in the abode of a professional musician, one who’s been doing this for decades. It was also perfectly L.A. I haven’t been in a house like this before, but from movies and TV, it felt familiar and funny in a way. And my buddy plays in a band, so seeing a bunch of guitars made sense:

And pedals:

I stuck my head outside. Indeed, the guitar-shaped pool was there! I write this gently, and not to poke fun, but is there anything more perfect than a musician living in Los Angeles with a guitar-shaped pool?

He took me to the back rooms, introduced me to two nice young folks who were busy at computer workstations, wearing headphones. They were interns or employees, and I have a recollection that one may have been one of Rob’s kids. I introduced myself, told them how excited it was to be there, and tried not to get in their way. I’ve occasionally visited a G.I. Joe alum’s home and I don’t want to appear like a salivating collector there to swindle someone out of rare art or toy prototypes. I’m mostly looking for information, and again, the act of meeting this person in person. A few times such a visit has netted me something concrete, like an old photograph, and yes, occasionally I’ve bought some rare art or toy prototypes. This wasn’t that kind of visit — just a follow-up for information.

Rob pointed to a densely packed closet-full of reels. I gasped.

I’ve been digitizing old film and videotape in my personal archive, and I have many out-of-date formats in need of rescuing. At home is a closet-full of DAT tapes, Video 8 tapes, and 16mm and 35mm negatives and release prints, so seeing something like this in Rob’s studio felt familiar. It made me anxious, but also happy and relieved that it was mere inches from the equipment that would “save” it, rather than sitting in boxes in a garage or a storage locker.

We stepped into the mixing room. The set-up was impressive — huge monitors, mixing boards, more gear, a sound booth, framed art and pictures on the wall. Rob pointed out a few trophies, like the photo with Stan Lee. Up on the massive monitor, several tracks were queued. Rob clicked “play” and an eruption of nostalgic, sonic might filled the tiny room. This was music I knew well and loved heartily. The audio quality was impressive — uncompressed WAV files, and I could hear all the instruments in this orchestra like I was in the original recording session. This was not crunched down to mono, broadcast across a timezone, and filtered through my 16-inch TV set’s speaker. The bass of the drums rumbled through the room, the strings swelled and roiled, and the horns surged into my ears. This was a music cue I’ve always identified with Zartan, what I would call a “creeping theme.” I laughed aloud, nervously — relief, the tingling joy of nostalgia, the physical need to push back against all the changes in air pressure as the soundwaves rocked around and through us. I probably said “Oh my god!” a few times. Like that My Little Pony film print in New York, this felt almost disorienting. How was I lucky enough to be here, hearing this, learning about this? Surely this was only a space, an experience, for professionals, or people who had contributed originally, someone like Rob. I wasn’t an invader, and I had been welcomed into this studio, but it still felt like this wasn’t for me. It was too rarified. But Rob had a big smile on his face, and he was going to (hopefully!) make some money off this, and fans would get what they’d been asking for, so it was, after all, okay that I was there.

Despite all of the digital tech, the “Protools HD-3 station, a digital automated console, a 9-foot 1080p HD Digital Projection room with 5.1 surround sound [which] has accomodated ADR, sound fx editing, sweetening and mixing,” as the website states, I loved seeing the analog stuff, too.

A few steps away was the recording booth, with acoustical foam, a mic, and even more guitars.

Rob had to step out for a minute, maybe to take a phone call. I couldn’t help myself, so I pulled out my phone, clicked “record,” and tapped “play” on the mouse in front of me. It was hard not to ruin the recording with my own giddy laughter.

Rob came back in, I took a photo of him, and one of his employees took a photo of us. Rob offered to take a picture of me in the booth. Now this is not where G.I. Joe voice actors recorded, but this is still a special space, where Rob and his peers made music. I’ve spent a little time in sound booths at colleges and studios on the East Coast, but again, this is a pro’s space, so I wasn’t going to say no. I mugged it up, and chuckled.

Rob signed one of those X-Men CDs that some legal maneuvering precluded him from selling, and handed it to me. I said thanks, thanks to his two employees, and hopped a cab.

Two small postscripts:

1) Why was I in L.A. in the first place? To visit family. My wife, Ellen, and I were out with her brother, Owen. But they knew I was taking this book-excursion, and “guitar-shaped pool” had become a shorthand joke for it. I was going to talk with the guy with the guitar-shaped pool. But Owen is a musician and around my age, and he was a G.I. Joe fan in the ’80s, too. So he understood that this wasn’t just lunch, but a fun and important rendezvous. I departed to meet Rob, and after leaving his studio, headed back directly to were I’d left my family. They were anxious to hear how it’d gone. I was ecstatic. Rob had played G.I. Joe music for me on this gigantic, deafening system! We three got into Owen’s car, and I was trying to describe how moving it all was, when Owen said “Wait, I can patch your phone into my car!” So we listened to that clip above, just the audio, in Owen’s otherwise unimpressive 4-door sedan. But car interiors are actually great acoustical environments, and Owen’s had great speakers. So Owen and El got to hear, just an hour after I did, this raw, loud, lush 1985 recording of a full orchestra belting out gorgeous 1980s theme music. Where I can share my excitement for all of this research, the book-writing, the meeting of fascinating people who’ve worked on G.I. Joe, I am thrilled. This was definitely that, all squeezed into an intimate, tiny space.

2) Four months later Rob emailed and asked if I would write some questions for him. He wanted to include interviews with people who’d worked on the Marvel/Hasbro cartoons as bonus features for his eventual music releases. I explained that the Rhino and Shout! Factory DVDs had covered that ground, but I was happy to do it anyway. Rob’s plan was to release the music remixed in 5.1 and on Blu-ray. I voted for vinyl instead. There may be a few audiophiles out there who will just listen to a Blu-ray in a home theatre, but this felt too much like a minority of a minority. (Also, I didn’t have a Blu-ray player, but would definitely buy a CD release!) Wouldn’t a Record Store Day release create some buzz? I don’t know if Rob conducted the interviews, and however the calculus ended up, when the Transformers music was released this past August it was indeed on vinyl, but I don’t take any credit for that.

I don’t know the state of any other music from the Walsh/Douglas/Hasbro library, but I hope we’ll get an official release of the G.I. Joe material. And I offer my condolences to Rob’s family and collaborators.

 

 

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Remembering Russ Heath

Sometimes I learn of news from TV, or when it’s first reported as I sit at my computer. Other times someone next to me sees that news appear on their phone, and they say it aloud. Friday, I was at my comic book store and my manager, who’s got similar tastes and knows all about my G.I. Joe history book, said “Did you see the sad news? Russ Heath died.” That’s fitting, that I was in a comic book shop, and a fellow G.I. Joe fan shared the info.

I never met Heath in person, but we spoke by phone in 2011. It was informal, and I was seeking to commission an original piece of G.I. Joe art from him. This was not an interview for my book — I did mildly inquire about Heath’s time on the G.I. Joe animated series, but that was 25 years prior and he didn’t remember. I asked him about a Bruce Timm anecdote I’d read, about Heath being able to draw model sheets in his sleep. I don’t recall Heath’s response, but it must have been pretty neutral.

I’ve come across a lot of Russ Heath art in researching and writing my book. Much of it as photocopies, some of original. There’s a technical precision that’s always memorable. Heath was the primary character designer for the 1983 G.I. Joe animated miniseries, its 1984 follow-up, the full 1985 season, the second season in 1986, the animated film in 1987, most of the television commercials along the way, and part of the DiC run between 1989 and 1991.

Here’s some original pencil art for G.I. Joe: The Movie:

We often think of characters, of Duke’s eyes or Flint’s ammo belts or Destro’s muscles, but Heath drew vehicles, bases, props, and animals, too. Here’s a model sheet for one of the Battle Force 2000 vehicles, which only shows up for a few frames of animation, in only one of the television commercials.

Much has been made of Heath’s technical precision and attention to detail. That is what got him this job, and his ample history drawing military comics. To wit:

He wasn’t the only designer, but he was the main one, conceiving the animation look of all primary characters in all views (front, three-quarters, side, etc), most secondary characters (and many of their turnaround views), and a lot of costume changes for both kinds of characters.

Jim Sorenson and Bill Forster put together for IDW Publishing two great books stuffed with Russ Heath models (and work by the other model designers from the G.I. Joe cartoon, but clearly Heath is primary here). Each is $20, and all black and white, and lots of fun. (Again: these are not color art books! They’re black and white animation reference books!) And available for order from your local comic book or book store. That cover art seen below isn’t Heath, but is drawn to look like his work.

But of course, Heath’s art is literally not to be seen in G.I. Joe animation. I was first exposed to his work in 1983, but it’s not his drawings that appeared on my television. This is the odd truth of the character designer. Heath drew a few poses, and then storyboarders, layout artists, and animators on two continents drew their own poses and movements in Heath’s style. While his fingerprints are all over G.I. Joe (and a bunch of other ’80s cartoons), it wasn’t until I started reading comic books that I saw a reproduction of his actual line. In one of the fantastic convergences of ’80s culture, Heath in fact drew — pencils and inks — a whole issue of G.I. Joe. This was one of the ones advertised on television, featuring animation that made use of his model sheets!) — issue #24. It’s crisp and smooth, and looks just like the show.

It is here that I am reminded that Heath did not draw the most dynamic poses. (The panel above is an unfair example, just two people standing still, and standing straight. Elsewhere in this issue there are diagonal vectors and figures jumping and hurling themselves. I picked this panel for its sense of menace, and for the scripting, too.) Heath’s work had a reassuring staidness to it. But I don’t mean this as a criticism. Everyone and everything is under control, for lack of a more precise term. “Staid” has a negative connotation, so perhaps a better word is “crisp.” Russ Heath’s work is as crisp as any I’ve seen in all of comics. Heath also came back around 3 years later to ink one more issue — #64 — on top of rookie penciler Ron Wagner. Heath was an artistic hero of Wagner’s, so this was quite a thrill. The issue, again, looks exactly like the show.

Wagner, coming from the Joe Kubert school (and the Larry Hama school) of torsion and cinematic, movie-like panel compositions, offers a lovely compliment for Heath, who utterly takes over. As a comic book reader, I missed all that work that made Heath well-known — the war comics for DC and such. But Heath was popping up in interesting places around 1990. Over writer Mike Baron’s great scripts, he drew a few issues of The Punisher that my brother and I certainly liked —

— and with writer Doug Murray, he drew a dramatic war graphic novel for Marvel called Hearts and Minds.

Murray wrote The ‘Nam, so if you’re a fan of that series, this book fits right in there with it.

(Heath showed up a few years later to draw an issue of The Nam, in fact.)

Last year I came across photocopies of Heath’s models for the wonderful 1989 pilot “Pryde of the X-Men.” This is my favorite 22 minutes of anything X-Men in all of television or film, and Marvel published a graphic novel adaptation of it, in case you’re wondering why this “screen cap” has word balloons–

I had forgotten Heath had worked on the show, but from across the room, those familiar lines, those carefully spotted blacks, in a pile on the floor in a garage in California, I knew it was Heath’s work.

Gosh, they’re just gorgeous. I like seeing the Byrne and the Cockrum through that lens, too.

With modern reprints, I have the opportunity to check out Heath’s first four decades’ worth of work, like this, from Battlefield issue #5, 1952–

Much has been made of Heath’s interest in drawing the female form. Little Annie Fanny was before my time, and isn’t quite my speed, but, yes, Russ Heath drew the female form with aplomb. I’m not interested in G.I. Joe characters being overly sexy, but we can all agree that that is part of, say, the Baroness’ visual. Much of that is Hasbro toy designer Ron Rudat, but in animation, that is all Russ Heath. Besides the lovely image of Pythona, above, I have a few Heath originals of her nude, even though she only appears clothed in G.I. Joe: The Movie. But Heath drew rugged and handsome men, too, and unlike a Joe Kubert, there is a handsomeness in even the most rugged of Heath’s men. Again, I go back to that word, “crisp.”

In the aforementioned 2011, I phoned Heath. He was taking on commissions. (Newsarama then carried a story about him, and the HERO Initiative’s involvement, which helped spread the word about his then-current state of health.) Heath was behind schedule, and so Steve Wyatt, a comics gent well-connected to conventions, artists, and galleries, was acting as Heath’s agent in this matter, and not taking a fee. I had sent off a pile of reference, and a concept, something that felt like it belonged in those first five episodes. The art arrived many months later, and I’m happy to have it, one last Joe image by the artist who created so many, but this one with a background, and color!

Here’s a detail.

Here’s to one of the great artists, Russ Heath.

 

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Index update – July 2018

Just a quick post that I’ve update the Index, so it’s easy to find the last two years’ worth of blog posts, and everything else that came before.

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B.A.T. Concepts (#3) by Ron Rudat

From 1981 to about 1987, Ron Rudat was Hasbro’s G.I. Joe figure designer. This drawing likely dates to 1984 or 1985. As with the last two we’ve examined here at A Real American Book!, it’s Rudat figuring out the look of Cobra’s Battle Android Trooper. Here’s a production B.A.T. that I purchased in 1986:

Here’s another Rudat concept, which for my own sense of organization I’m calling B.A.T. Concept #3.

In its plastic, finished form, the B.A.T.’s color scheme and robot-head make for a compelling villain. The interchangeable parts and the lenticular chest label add a dash of innovation that makes this one of the most fun-to-play with G.I. Joe action figures. My brother and I would have our B.A.T.S walk in a stilted, halting gait, and we’d make a clicking sound to mimic the mechanical march we’d heard in “Arise, Serpentor, Arise!,” a quintet of cartoon episodes that aired in the fall of ’86.

What about the B.A.T. strikes you?

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B.A.T. Concepts (#2) by Ron Rudat

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B.A.T. Concepts (#1) by Ron Rudat

RonRudat_86BAT_concept01_TEASE

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HASCON 2017 – the Real American Book! convention report

Continuing my trend of blog posts 6 months late, let’s look back at that last major con before heading off, today, to the next one!

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