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Winter Draws On: Disney's Gremlins and the Walt Kelly Myth

Winter Draws On: Disney's Gremlins and the Walt Kelly Myth

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During World War II, children's author Roald Dahl wrote a book about gremlins based on stories he had heard from his R.A.F. peers. The book has never been reprinted and it is almost impossible to find a copy of it.. Before it was even published, the book came to the attention of Walt Disney who thought it would be a good basis for an animated feature and spent a good deal of time and money in developing the project before he finally cancelled it.

Disney Historian Jim Korkis wrote the definitive article about the unmade project. He wrote it over five years ago and it is still awaiting publication in the next issue of Paul Anderson's "Persistence of Vision" magazine devoted to Disney's involvement in World War II which was supposed to be published nearly half a decade ago. While visiting Jim during Mousefest, I got to see his completed manuscript and it finally helped me understand something that had been bothering me for years.

I am a big Walt Kelly fan and have been a long time subscriber to the "Fort Mudge Most" from the Pogo Fan Club but just about every source claims that Kelly illustrated the book when it was actually the work of Bill Justice and Al Dempster with a cover by Mary Blair. Just about every source claims that Kelly did a handbook with the gremlins for the Air Force. He didn't.

So in the interests of helping fellow Walt Kelly fans from trying to track down expensive, hard-to-find material that does not contain Kelly's wonderful work, I am sharing some of the information from Jim's unpublished manuscript.

"When Flight Lieutenant Roald Dahl came to the studio to work on the Gremlin project, I was assigned to draw these little creatures according to his description. For me, the project began as a book. Working together, he dictated the story and I made pencil illustrations for his approval," remembered Disney artist Bill Justice when he was interviewed by Disney historian Jim Korkis for his article on the abandoned Disney project , "The project wasn't a total loss. This was the first time I'd ever been asked to create a new cartoon character. Despite the eventual abandonment of the feature, an artist named Al Dempster added some full page color paintings to my illustrations and the book THE GREMLINS was published by Random House. It was the first book I'd ever illustrated." Even decades later, Justice has fond memories of receiving a rare personal "thank you" note from Walt himself in appreciation of Justice's work on THE GREMLINS.

One of the characters in Dahl's book that Justice designed was "Gremlin Gus" who was the leader of the gremlins. There were efforts by the Disney Studio to push the character of Gremlin Gus in order to secure a copyright on the Disney interpretation of these R.A.F. creatures. One effort was to introduce the character in the popular selling comic book WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES.

From January 6,1936 to September 12,1941, Walt Kelly worked as an animator of the Disney Studios. Kelly moved back to New York and started working for Western Publishing on DELL comic books which is where he developed his famous Pogo character and friends. Kelly did the series of two page Gremlin strips for Walt Disney's Comics and Stories starting in 1943 with issue #34 and ending in 1944 with issue #41. These self contained strips were known as "pantomime strips" in the business since they featured no dialog.

In a military setting, Gremlin Gus (occasionally assisted by two widgets who are baby gremlins) made every effort to cause mischief for airmen with everything from a saw to a gas can to a mousetrap to a pipe. Issue #34 also included a cut out paper doll of Gremlin Gus and issue #35 had a cut out paper doll of a Fifinella, a female gremlin.

As a result of this work, Kelly has also been credited by some authorities as doing the gremlin artwork for a U.S. Army Air Forces Training Manual entitled WINTER DRAWS ON. However, this is incorrect. Kelly did other training manuals during 1943 including DUTCH: A GUIDE TO THE SPOKEN LANGUAGE and JAPANESE: A GUIDE TO THE SPOKEN LANGUAGE. But these manuals did not feature Disney characters.

According to evidence in Jim Korkis's extensive Gremlins files, in June 1943, it was Bill Justice who was assigned to draw Spandules "for planned publication in a book for the Air Corps".

The cover proclaims "Winter Draws On. Meet the 'Spandules'. Illustrations by Walt Disney." The covers and the interior are printed in black and white and blue.

The booklet is six inches wide by four and a half inches tall. It is twenty-eight pages long including front and back covers. The front cover has a picture of a single propellor airplane heading toward the reader with two Spandules on the side, one of whom is blowing frost on one of the wings and the cockpit. The back cover has three spandules building a snowman that has a fighter pilot's helmet, a parachute and flying wings pin on the strap.

The first interior page states that it is "prepared by the Safety Education Division, Flight Control Command, United States Army Air Force, Illustrations copyrighted 1943 by Walt Disney Productions."

The introduction states: "In this book for the first time is pictured a close relative of the Gremlin, the 'Spandule'. These little fellows inhabit the air space above 30,000 feet except in the winter time, when they come down to lower altitudes and have been known to play around on the ground. Although not mean at heart, these little guys are forced by their very nature to do a lot of things to get a pilot in trouble. Whenever an airplane enters their domain they pounce aboard. They like to test a guy out. If he is on his toes they probably won't bother him much, but if he looks sound asleep or a little thick between the ears they are almost sure to plaster his wings with ice, load down his propeller, and do all sorts of tricks that can be real serious. If you know where to look for Spandules and if you keep a close watch for the first evidence of their handiwork, you can usually avoid a run-in with them. This book will help you do that. The life-like pictures of Spandules which appear in this book were created by Walt Disney at the invitation of the Flight Control Command."

The Spandule is similar in facial design to the other gremlins developed by the Disney Studios but there are also some significant differences. They have two curved horns coming out of the top of their head making them look like small Vikings. They have big round noses and long white beards. Their bodies are covered with long hair and they apparently have no legs or feet, just trailing hair that bends like a tail. They wear big white gloves to distinguish their hands that have long thin fingers and a thumb.

In the pamphlet, there are twenty reminders/warnings, one per page and usually just a sentence or two. Each warning is accompanied by a Disney cartoon. For instance, the warning "Avoid icy and slushy spots when taxying. You may skid. Be easy with your brakes" is illustrated by a Spandule pulling on the wheel, another Spandule grabbing that Spandule's horns and pulling on him and yet another Spandule blowing frosty breath on the spinning tire or "Make wide turns when you have ice. Steep turns with icy wings are suicide" shows a tipped wing covered with ice and three concerned spandules riding a sled that is quickly sliding down the wing or "Try all controls before taxying for a take-off. Ice may be binding a control-surface hinge" shows seven Spandules hanging on to each other's tails as they spin around the back tail rudder and blow frosty ice onto it.

From a Disney standpoint, it is another interesting tangent in the development of the Gremlins project. However, for a Walt Kelly collector, this is something to cross off your list.

I know that writer David Gerstein is working on some special projects for Gemstone, the company that publishes Disney comics. He is putting together a book on all those Good Housekeeping pages printed int he Forties so I hope he reads Jim Korkis's article that appeared on this site which researched the history behind those pages. Maybe if he reads this site, he'll consider suggesting reprinting all of Walt Kelly's Gremlins pages plus some of the other oddball Gremlin artwork out there that is in Disney's vaults.

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