Review: "I Say, I Say...Son!" Shines a Light on Looney Tunes' McKimson Brothers
I Say, I Say…Son! bills itself as a tribute to Bob, Chuck, and Tom McKimson: three artistic brothers who spent tenures at Warner Bros. Animation during its heyday from the 1940’s to the 1960’s. One might easily question the objectivity of Robert McKimson, Jr., who is the son of the eldest brother Bob, but the close familial proximity to his father and uncles that might cause one to question his objectivity also gave him access to the family archives of artwork taken from the different studios that the McKimson brothers worked at. If nothing else, this means that this handsome coffee-table book is loaded to the gills with marvelous artwork, much of which can’t be seen elsewhere. Fortunately, McKimson also avoids hagiography, presenting a fair look at the brothers’ prodigious artistic gifts without giving the appearance of undue lionization.
Each chapter of I Say, I Say…Son! focuses on one major chapter of the McKimson brothers’ career, with the first chapters chronicling the earliest days of the animation industry and the growth and education of the brothers. A split happens fairly early on in the Warner Bros. years, focusing primarily on Bob McKimson and his tremendous contributions to the classic Looney Tunes cartoons. If success has many fathers, then the runaway success of Bugs Bunny has led to many claiming credit for creating the Wascally Wabbit. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I Say, I Say…Son! credits the eldest McKimson brother with the first designs for Bugs Bunny, although it is also quite capable of providing documentary evidence to back up the claim. This Warner Bros. chapter is the longest of the book, running all the way to the contributions on The Amazing Mr. Limpet and the eventual shuttering of the studio.
The rest of the book follows the careers of Chuck and Tom McKimson, who earned a few animation credits before making their major marks in the world of publishing. Their contributions to Western Publishing (under the Little Golden Books, Dell Comics, and Whitman Publishing imprints) ensured Bugs Bunny’s legacy, and the book reveals how Bob McKimson worked with them in between stints at animation studios. This is also probably the portion of the book whose history is the least well-documented, so I Say, I Say…Son! deserves much credit for covering this history in such depth. Much of the comic book and children’s book artwork from these publishers was not credited, making it that much more invaluable that this book can provide so may examples of the McKimson’s work without any question of its provenance. In fact, all the artwork in the book is a quiet testament to the fact that both the Warner Bros. studios and the assorted publishing companies that the McKimsons worked for didn’t really consider the art itself to be worth preserving, since they just let the artists take what they wanted once the material had been used. I’m sure they certainly didn’t expect it to have such staying power over the years. The remainder of the book chronicles the McKimsons’ work with the likes of the UPA studios and DePatie-Freleng. Throughout the book, several sub-sections cover the creation and animation history of specific characters such as Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, Tweety Pie, Mr. Magoo, and the Pink Panther.
I found the text of the book to be solid and well-researched, but slightly dry and more matter-of-fact than one might expect of the zany characters both on and off the page. A lot of the historical material has been relayed elsewhere, confirming some widely-relayed accounts and adding a few other anecdotes I’d never heard before about the McKimsons themselves. It just isn’t quite as rollicking a read as Iwao Takamoto’s autobiography, or Chuck Jones’ hilarious Chuck Amuck (although, to be fair, the latter is also far more questionable as a historical document, feeling more like the Looney Tunes rendition of Jones’ life than a true memoir). This might be how Robert Jr.’s maintained his impartiality, given that he’s writing about his father and uncles. If so, then he might have succeeded a bit too well, since the text might have done better with a little more visible enthusiasm. There are also a few points where an editor might have assisted, with the most prominent during the Warner Bros. era when Bob Clampett was a director. With two “Bob”s working in close proximity, the standard seems to have been to refer to McKimson as “Bob” and Clampett by his family name, but there are a few points where it’s not entirely clear whether Robert Jr. slipped up used “Bob” to refer to Clampett instead. John Kricfalusi provides an introduction and animation historian and animator Darrell Van Citters provides a foreword, and if Robert Jr. holds back his more effusive praise, then Kricfalusi and Van Citters happily make up for it.
As mentioned, the real value of the book lies in the wealth of artwork in it, taken from both animation and print and from all stages of production. Much of the artwork is from the McKimson family collection, taken from the studios or drawn for the family over the years, so much of it is new and not seen before. All of it is amazing, as one might expect from artists of the McKimsons’ caliber, and the text does reveal how the fine art background of the brothers aided in their draftsmanship at their jobs.
In the end, I Say, I Say…Son! is a solid and worthwhile addition to the history of the Looney Tunes, shining a light on a slightly under-recognized talent from the studio. The artwork alone would make the book a worthwhile addition to any serious fan of the Looney Tunes cartoons, and fans will still glean some new and interesting anecdotes and tidbits from the text.