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With Buzz Dixon

 

Words by Heather Dixon

Our first interview is with Buzz Dixon. Arguably, one of my primary artistic influences, my go-to mentor, and the first man in my life. He's been a guiding voice throughout my career, and he's also my father.

You may have also unknowingly grown up with Buzz through his work on classic cartoon shows such as G.I. Joe, The Transformers, Jem and the Holograms, or My Little Pony and his other work in television, film, comics, etc. Most recently he’s written "G.I. Joe: The Most Dangerous Man in the World," a novel he originally wanted to tell about the origins of Cobra. Check it out as well at his blog at Buzzdixon.com.

To fuel our conversation, coffee and donuts were eaten at S&S Donuts & Bake Shop in Valencia. We purchased a half dozen donuts including the house special, a Maple Bacon Cronut. Two coffees and a faux-cha (hot cocoa plus coffee) in hand, we settled down to talk about how he views pop culture and how it can mature into an art form.

 
 

Dad History Lesson

Buzz “wrote” his first book at age five, carefully copying names and pictures of dinosaurs onto sheets of paper he stapled together. Around ten, he became serious about writing. His family moved frequently so he found consistency and friendship in science fiction fanzines, friends waiting for him in his mailbox at every new address. He wrote lengthy letters to monster magazines, an underground paper in high school, he reviewed sci-fi for fanzines, eventually editing a post newspaper for the Army when drafted, and finally ended up in California working his way down the list of studios until he got his foot in the door at Filmation Studios.

 
“Everything that I worked on, I tried to have some real motive, some real emotional reason why either the hero or the villain would do a particular thing. That’s what grounds stories.”
 

THE IMPORTANCE OF UNCLE REMUS AND HOW HIS STORIES HAVE AGED BADLY

My father is a walking encyclopedia. This has been a good and bad thing. Good for when you're in high school and really need to get homework done and bad for when you really need to get homework done and he proceeds to lecture you about the inaccuracies of your reading worksheet.

We talked about how Disney’s Song of the South has not aged well yet retains important cultural lessons.

We need to delve into the complex history of Uncle Remus before analyzing how it has aged within pop culture. Briefly, Joel Chandler Harris preserved an entire school of storytelling that might otherwise have been lost. African folk tales retold with a Southern spin, Harris captures the voices of the people as it is spoken. This an uncommon way to write in the late 1800's and becomes an important time capsule for a very specific era.

Unfortunately, this writing style ages badly.

Later, when Walt Disney makes Song of the South, his studio creates a big Technicolor musical about an African American man and his stories when no other studio would even consider such an option. To this day, the humor of the animated character sequences is still charming and captivating. There’s an entire E-Ticket attraction, in three Disney theme parks, dedicated to these rascals and their adventures.

 
 

Unfortunately, the movie ages badly. Though the attraction experience is still solid.

While we cringe today in reading or watching the Uncle Remus character, we need to remember that for the time these works originated, it was a break from the norm and pushed boundaries. And should animated characters be regarded the same way as live action humans? Buzz thinks placing Br’er Rabbit and company in the world of Zootopia as country cousins could work without the racial undertones. I agree.

Oh, and you shouldn't sing “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” anymore as it's based on a racist minstrel show song. Yikes!

 
 

AN INTRO TO WESTERN MUSIC AND EUROPEAN MYTHS AND LEGENDS

Something that aged well is “What’s Opera, Doc?”, the classic Warner Brothers cartoon that examines contradictory aspects of human nature, how desire overwhelms all other motives, and the validation of the trickster character. Also, it's just so darn funny.

Warner Brothers Termite Terrace animators succeeded by being the opposite of Disney’s "One Man, One Dream." A playful gang of cartoonists playing “top that!” with each other. Visually and thematically, their cartoons captured the changing nature of their times and encapsulated the future by using classical music and referencing traditional storytelling and mythology. At the end of the day, KILL THE WABBITT!

 
 

BE LIKE BUZZ, LISTEN TO THIS MUSIC

He grew up watching cartoons with musical cues from Wagner to Raymond Scott, cheap B-Westerns with soundtracks lifted from Beethoven and other classical composers, and listened to outre’ musicians such as jazz great Sun Ra.

Those are the ones we talked about, but thanks to him I also grew up with Dr. Demento on the radio, and DEVO and Yma Sumac on the record player. The CD's I borrowed permanently from his collection were often scoffed at by my peers. While my friends were listening to Nirvana, Metallica, and Nine Inch Nails, at night I was belting out the songs of Tom Lehrer.

 
“There are certain creators, artists, and they absolutely deserve the name artist, who whatever it is they do they forever change what comes after. You can never go back to what it was before then.”
 

Never Trust Your Legal Department to Know Cultural References

I’ve heard this story a million times and it never gets old. It gets older, but I’ve not yet reached total saturation eye roll. Buzz expected Hasbro’s legal department to change his obvious placeholder name “Cobra-la” in G.I. Joe thinking they’d realize it referenced Shangri-la in James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, the most famous lost civilization in literature. Instead they allowed it.

Buzz (top left, handlebar 'stache) at Wally Burr Studios during the soundtrack recording of G.I.Joe: The Movie.

Buzz (top left, handlebar 'stache) at Wally Burr Studios during the soundtrack recording of G.I.Joe: The Movie.

This is the chaos that can happen without Google.

Lesson learned. If you need a placeholder name,  make it extremely vulgar or else you might get stuck with your bad idea.

 
 

Freddy Krueger, the animated series

In regards to reboots and rehashing, Buzz manages, on the spot, to create an entire show concept for kids based on Freddy Krueger which would have life lessons and nightmares.

I think this needs to happen.

 
 

Mashing Up The Comic Book Pages

Marvel can thank its success to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby fusing monster stories with soap opera comics, forever changing superheroes by mixing mutants with melodrama.

Marvel continues to mature into a franchise universe with expansive and interconnected stories by reimagining their classic characters again and again. The superhero suits age well by having storylines in constant refresh.

 
 

Yo, Joe

G.I. Joe started with a simple toy line that included bio cards, then became comic books, a television show, movies, and now comes back around to start over again with nostalgia and new generations. What do we learn with each iteration? Do the stories of our childhood shape the world in ways we don’t expect as we grow older? The audience decides what is art, what will withstand the test of time, and what shapes the way the viewer sees the world.  What is the creator’s responsibility in how the work shapes the future?

Will the work age badly?

 
“A number of people in the military have told me that G.I. Joe was an inspiration for them. That weighs heavily on me because I realize there are people who are putting themselves in harm’s way based on something that I wrote many, many years ago.”