An interview with legendary illustrator Bill Plympton on his forthcoming book, friendship with Terry Gilliam and the future of adult animation in America
At 13-years-old Bill Plympton wrote to Walt Disney asking for a job in the animation department. The young illustrator was initially rejected, but an Oscar nomination six years later for his animated short called "Your Face" led to Disney knocking on his door—where Plympton finally got his turn to say no. These were the early days of Plympton's prolific career, which can be seen in its entirety in Rizzoli's new book on the groundbreaking illustrator. "Independently Animated" is a 264-page retrospective tome that traces Plympton's life and career as he paved his own Oregon trail from Portland to NYC in search of cinematic greatness.
Ignited by a foreword from close friend and Monty Python writer Terry Gilliam, the book—written by Plympton and David B. Levy—reads like a meandering journey into the mind of a slightly demented and always devious social agitator who wielded his colored pencils to entertain fans and influence artists around the world. Plympton surprisingly says his career as an artistic provocateur began accidentally, when a friend asked him to design a poster for his high school presidential campaign. "It was that moment when I realized the power of cartoons—they're not just the territory of goofy animals and funny jokes. No! Cartoons can make people think differently; they can push people to the edge."
"Independently Animated" also sheds light on Plympton's ties to the political world, which coincidentally began when he sold one of his comic strips to a small newspaper in Flint, MI, where an editor named Michael Moore was at the helm. His influence is undeniable in the realm of social satire. The compilation of photos throughout the book reveal a man who keeps his pencil on the pulse of political and artistic humor. His pointed sketches include one of Donald Rumsfeld, fresh off a trip to Iraq to meet Saddam Hussein, a sinister-looking Pat Robertson and an alien-esque Jesse Jackson. Throughout all of the twisted and inventive styles of sketches one thing remains, the ability to laugh at absolutely everything.
We recently had the chance to catch up with Plympton at his NYC studio, where told us more about his intriguing career and created an original sketch for Cool Hunting.
Growing up you wanted to work for Disney. What was it like when you finally got to reject them?
Yeah I did want to work for Disney, that was my big goal in life, to work for Disney. What happened was around the mid-eighties when I got started with animation, that's when the whole indie scene exploded. Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee and Kevin Smith, people like that they were making films outside of the Hollywood sphere, and I thought well that's an interesting concept. And so I got bitten by that bug also, and I thought 'Who needs Disney?' I don't want to work for some corporate entity, I'd rather just have control of my own films, so that's why I rejected Disney. Today if they offered me a good deal, I'd be more than happy to work with Disney, but it's not a big philosophical point for me. If the work is good and interesting I'll do it, but at this point I'm doing so well as an independent and I am making a living as an independent so why change?
What is the difference between how your work is perceived in America compared places like Japan or France, where adult animation is more mainstream?
One of the things that bugs me is that Quentin Tarantino can make these films that are basically cartoons, and they're wildly popular. But when I do adult topics in animation they say 'You can't do that, that's Disney's art form. You are taking animation and ruining it, you're sullying the wonderful, beautiful reputation of animation.' People in America just can't get it into their heads that animation is not strictly a childrens medium. That's why I want to try and break that stupid barrier. Japan, France, particularly Germany, Spain—they accept adult ideas much more easily than they do here in the States. That's the problem I have with distributors here—they don't know what the audience for the film is, or who is going to go see an animated film with adult ideas. So there is this sort of mind-freeze that these distributors have, and I disagree because I think there is a huge audience for them. Just look at the sales for graphic novels.
Was there ever a time when you longed for mainstream success even though you were working off the grid?
I think about that all the time. I look at a Pixar or a Blue Sky Film, or see their billboards all over the city, and they're opening in 4,000 cinemas nationwide and 10,000 around the world. I wish I could get that, it would be wonderful. But they have to pay a price for that—there's a certain deal with the devil that they make to do those. And the devils are usually the corporate studios, and they have to change everything to meet the desires of marketing teams. So it's not really their film, it's someone else's. I sure would like to make a film that played in 1,000 cinemas though, that would be so wonderful.
How would you describe you're relationship with Terry Gilliam?
I first met him about fifteen years ago, at the party for "12 Monkeys." I introduced myself, and he knew who I was he had seen my films. The next time I saw him was in Dubai, there was a festival there and he was the judge, or getting a prize. I introduced myself again, and he said "Oh Bill, how you doing?' I happened to have my portfolio of drawings from "Idiots and Angels" and so he said 'Let me look at them.' And he just went nuts, he was getting into the detail, and how I drew these drawings, and his press agent was there and said 'Terry we have an interview with the BBC, we gotta get going,' and he responded, 'Oh fuck BBC, I want to look at these drawings.' So he really got involved in the art, asked what he could do to help me with the film. I said 'Would you mind being the presenter of this film, no money, no commitment?' He's been really nice, he wrote the forward to the book, and he's doing the introduction to a documentary they're doing about me. He's been extremely supportive, he's just the nicest guy.