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Alex Stroup and Kevin Yee
January 17, 2001

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  Reviewed:
Disney Dons Dogtags: The Best of Disney Military Insignia from World War II
Walton Rawls,
New York: The Abbeville Publishing Group, 1992
 

ALEX KEVIN

This book is a pretty radical departure from our normal reading list, I have to say. It's much more an art-book, where the substance is less the author's words than the images chosen. I have lots to say about the specifics, but as a general statement I think I'll restrict myself to "I like it." I found it a delightful read, easy to digest and great eye candy.
I agree. The positives far outweigh the negatives on this one. I've run into this book a couple of times, both times it was being used as a "coffee table book." This is a wonderful book for that purpose. It is pretty, and somewhat informative, and you need only spend a minute here and there looking at it.
Let's talk about "pretty" first of all. There is a uniform pale yellow background, which I find pleasant on its own and necessary to "set off" the colorful images. The splashes of color somehow seem even more vivid, given the background. And I'm a big fan of the presentation of the images. Clean and crisp!
The background color didn't particularly appeal to me, but it did provide for a much softer look that if a standard white background was used. By the way, being male I have a color vocabulary of about 8 words so I sought expert female assistance and was given the technical name for the color - "ivory-cream-yellowish." So much for gender stereotypes.
Hahaha! That’s great!
The pictures are very well presented for the most part, but one thing I was wondering was whether the images shown were originals from the time, or new drawings for the book. If that was mentioned I missed it.
Oh, I think it's pretty plain that we’re seeing the original images here. How could they be otherwise? One thing about the presentation I didn't enjoy so much was the occasional mention of one particular insignia in the text entire pages away from the image itself. For that matter, the images - while beautiful, colorful, and so on, are never presented in any comprehensive manner. The chapters break down the 1200 insignia into groupings (birds, Pluto, Donald, etc.) but it's all rather done for color and style, rather than completeness. Could a compilation or table not have been made to list everything? Maybe with thumbnailed images?
Yes, that was my only big gripe as well. It is pretty, but it will be difficult to find a certain piece of information (for example, my uncle was in the X battalion). And, for some reason, when an insignia was mentioned in the text, the image was not captioned.
Before we move on to discussing the text of the book, one last thing about the images. We're told that many of these insignia used in WWII were minor Disney characters or invented ones. I would like to have known who all these minor characters were! It seemed to me that most were invented, in fact. And on the subject of characters, didn't it strike you as odd that Disney characters - of all things in the world - should be chosen to represent units or squads in the U.S. Armed Forces?
As the text mentions - thanks for the segue - Disney was somewhat co-opted into providing lots of services for the military. I'm sure that once word got out that Disney was doing this, it was just the easiest route for many units.

Obviously, the text isn't really the point of this book, but it does provide a brief, upbeat accounting of Disney's roles in WWII.

I'll come back to the history question in a second, but on the Disney characters I still wanted to comment that it just doesn't work for me at some level. I mean, these are *DISNEY* characters. Pinocchio doesn't scare me! The fatal flaw here is that either the character looks harmless and innocent, or else it looks jarring to see Disney characters acting ferocious (it's usually Pluto or Donald doing so). Of course, I say this as a person of the 21st century, with today's cultural filters and views of these characters. Still, perhaps the very oddness of it all is what I find so fascinating about the book.
Some characters work as they have definite dark/aggressive elements: Donald Duck; Pete; Pluto. But I don't imagine that Jiminy Cricket sent the Germans into retreat. I do think that the "no-name" character insignia seem to be of higher quality. I particularly like the one for the "Mosquito Fleet" (pg. 14).
To return to the text, I do think this fresh angle of looking at the company's history does reveal some hidden nuggets of information. We're told on p.22 that the Disney artist designing many of these - Harry Porter - complained "that although there were dozens of fanciful bugs, birds, and beasts int he Disney Technicolor meagerie, there were very few fish to choose from." This is the sort of factoid about Disney (there are few fish!) that might otherwise never have risen to light if not for the author's rather unique of viewing history through the insignias, at least in this book.
I would have enjoyed a bit at the end about what happened to these insignia after the war...how long did they survive...are any still in use, etc.
Yeah, that would have been nice, actually. One gets the impression that Rawls is not out for completeness by any means. We didn't mention this yet, but only a fraction of the 1200 insignia are even shown in this book.
On the issue of completeness, the subtitle is "the best of..." Since some of those included struck me as pretty bad (pg. 91 left-most) it may be good we don't get to see them all.
Switching tracks somewhat, I did notice something interesting. Rawls talks of the wartime shorts - made for the military or for the war effort - but he doesn't really point out that the war brings Walt to do something he resisted commercially: sequels. The pigs and the dwarves are put to work again, though he refused to do so for profit only years earlier. Rawls doesn't actually say this, but it's indicative of this book that he caused me to notice it. The book is mostly just informative enough to get me wondering and thinking.
The book can cause some thinking (though it isn't the type of book that requires it). My mental wanderings involved the role of American iconography in morale. The importance of iconography in maintaining links to the distant home may explain why soldiers wanted to use images as non-threatening as Thumper. Despite all the reasons not to use them, they are unequivocally American (but this wouldn't explain their extensive use by the RAF).
Interesting idea. I had wondered about the title itself. The alliteration is clearly intentional, but the juxtaposition of these words in particular forced me to reflect upon their meanings. If Disney "dons" (that is, wears) dogtags, then the title is tantamount to: "Disney joins the war effort." However, we of course don't hear about dogtags, so it's a bit of a misnomer. Moreover, dogtags allude to death; that's the only time they really come into play and fulfill their function. Am I reading too much into this?
I don't know where death would come in. Dogtags could also be meant simply as inclusion. Everyone in the military wore dogtags. (Though you could claim that the Army did its best to kill the studio during the war with its intensive financial demands.) But it is pretty clear that Rawls feels that Disney played more than just a cheerleader role.
Perhaps you're right. After all, I do want to augment my criticisms with a dump truck of salt; I recognize that I'm being nitpicky. I really do like this book, and I feel it was easily worth the purchase price. How often does a book come out that showcases totally different styles of Disney art that you've never seen before? Sadly, it is now out of print. But if you can find one, (via Amazon's search service, which we've linked) grab it. I loved it.
This book should appeal to just about any kind of Disney enthusiast (except perhaps the true pacifist); it highlights a unique element of Disney's artistic past, frequently showing character's in completely new ways (Pinocchio fixing airplanes!); it provides some narrow insight into both WWII history and Disney history, and best of all it is a good coffee table book that doesn't weigh 15 pounds and cost $100.

Disney Dons Dogtags

FROM THE PUBLISHER

Swamped in World War II with requests from the military to use the world-famous Disney characters in creating distinctive unit insignia, the Disney Studio had to set up a special five-man crew of artists to meet the demand for designs. "They meant a lot to the men who were fighting," said Walt Disney. "How could you turn them down?"

Imaginative, colorful, and well-executed, these insignia occupy a unique place in Disney history. Over a five-year period, as a contribution to the war effort, the Studio created some 1,200 insignia, the best of which have been selected for this volume - the first comprehensive survey of this relatively unknown body of Disney art.

For the most part, these delightful designs exist today only as fifty- year- old color transparencies or black- and- white photos in the Disney Archives, the originals having been sent directly to their respective units during the war. Nevertheless, period reproductions of the originals can still be found in wartime Disney comic books, on matchbook covers, poster stamps, and, indeed, the leather and woven patches that were inspired by the art - all of which are now very collectible.

It is a tribute to the success of the Disney animators in giving believable personalities to "drawings that move" that some well-known cartoon figures were suitable for military service while others were not. For instance, Donald Duck appeared in more than two hundred designs - his famous temper fit him for militant postures - while the lovable, bashful Mickey Mouse was rarely called upon except for home front causes.

Where no Disney character quite fit the bill, the studio happily created new ones, as in the case of the well- known symbols for the Flying Tigers, the Mosquito Fleet, and the Seabees. In addition to being of interest to Disney enthusiasts and collectors - imagine, after all these years, opening a treasure trove of forgotten Disney artwork - this book definitely will appeal to military buffs and veterans.

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