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The (Forgotten) Black Walt Disney: Jim Simon

The man they once called "the Black Walt Disney" doesn't even have a Wikipedia page and the collected clips of his original work on YouTube don't even add up to seven full minutes, but the scant few items of substance that Google can come up with tell a fascinating story.
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by Thomas Michalski

Before the videos you're about to watch (just watched?) landed in my email inbox, I had never heard of Jim Simon. This, in and of itself, was not surprising (there are many things I've never heard of), but where things got interesting was trying to learn about the apparently acclaimed animator and finding that the internet doesn't know that much about him either. The man they once called "the Black Walt Disney" doesn't even have a Wikipedia page and the collected clips of his original work on YouTube don't even add up to seven full minutes, but the scant few items of substance that Google can come up with tell a fascinating story. On one hand, it's a tale about the challenges of being Black and ambitious in America, but it's also more universal than that -- a story about humanity's creative spark, the circumstances that conspire to extinguish it, and how it can be rekindled even after all seems lost.

At a young age, Jim Simon's parents divorced and his mother moved the children from Darlington, South Carolina, where he worked on his uncle's cotton and tobacco farm, to New York City. While attending junior high, an art teacher noticed his natural talents and encouraged him to attend New York's High School of Art and Design. Simon followed the advice, even though it meant putting his keen interest in sports on the back burner, and ended up graduating with honors in screen animation and being awarded multiple scholarships, which together allowed him to attend the School of Visual Arts. Initially pursuing a career producing live-action TV, Simon eventually realized that animation was his true calling, and upon graduating, entered the strict hierarchical ranks of the professional animation industry.

Mainly thanks to his strong work ethic, Simon could be said to have flourished after he landed a job at Paramount Studios, working on a variety of projects that included the funky 1960's Spiderman series. Unfortunately, though, becoming a full-fledged animator in the studio system and rising to a point where you have any control meant graduating through a series of menial and thankless jobs. Even then, people were often denied advancement due to racism. For the driven Simon, things were not moving fast enough. "I was turning out so much work, they had to promote me..." Simon told Millimeter Magazine in 1975, "But it got to the point that I was just too excited about the things going on in my own head, which I could not release while working for someone else." His solution was to quit his steady job and go freelance, which in turn gave him the confidence to establish his own production house, Wantu Animation, in the early 1970s. He had to borrow the $250 he needed to register the company, but he had all the skills, experience and vision to make it work.

He also had a social conscience. Wantu, which means "beautiful" in Swahili, was not just a black-owned company, but an outspoken and progressive one. Simon was open about the animation industry's unwelcoming attitude toward people of color, and decried the lack of diversity in children's programming. He wanted Wantu to be different, a place where his employees would be encouraged to grow as artists and the work they produced would reflect the real America, even as it entertained. But he also realized that to accomplish anything, his new venture would need to be financially sound, and all indications are that this was certainly the case. According to a 1977 issue of Black Enterprise magazine, "Jim Simon simply does not believe in going into debt unless there's a sure way out."

A small selection of the work of Jim Simon from Sesame Street and The Electric Company

In the beginning, the future seemed limitless for Wantu. At the next year's International Animated Film Association East awards, seven of the 15 prizes handed out went to Simon's company. In addition to a steady stream of advertising contracts, Wantu also sold short animated subjects, such as the well-known "A Loaf of Bread, a Container of Milk, and a Stick of Butter", to a variety of public broadcast kid's shows, including Vegetable Soup, The Electric Company and Sesame Street. These are seemingly the only Wantu animations available online, and though they're certainly a small slice of the firms output, you can see in them the infectious style that made the company such a promising proposition. Everything about these low-budget shorts breathes life: the sharp, slicing lines seem laid down in jittery excitement, but they all move with a lovely fluidity and an organic rhythm.

It's not exactly clear what went wrong or when, but the press coverage drops off precipitously after the company announced plans to move operations from New York to Hollywood in the late 1970s. The reasons for relocating seemed simple enough; while New York is a marketing capital, Simon was growing tired of relying on commercial income. There were also the restrictions that selling a product put on creativity, and Los Angeles is an entertainment and filmmaking mecca, so they would be close to their clients as they switched their focus to TV specials and features. There were however, going to be some challenges. Though they were often cagey about disclosing how much of the market they dominated, the big animation studios held something of an unspoken monopoly in Southern California. Still, that didn't deter Simon. In the interview with Black Enterprise, he sounds hopeful, but realistic about the transition. "I don't think it's any more difficult to crack the creative market than the commercial still takes creativity, guts and determination", he said, before adding, "When you are a black organization, whatever area you break into is the area they are going to keep you in for the rest of your life. So I might as well go where I want to go."

Again, there's a definite lack of documentation, but for whatever reason, Hollywood proved a tougher town than New York and by the early 1980s, Simon was forced to go to work for the very corporate studios that Wantu was supposed to be the remedy for. While he spent the next decade or so fulfilling a variety of roles in the production of dozens of series, among them The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and X-Men, he had yet to completely give up on his dream, trying to develop several series on the side, including one with Don Cornelius, intriguingly titled The Lil Soul Train and the Soul Kids, but they all failed to see the light of day. Beaten down by these continual disappointments, Simon retired from animation and sank into depression, alcoholism and homelessness, vowing that he would never draw again for the rest of his life.

And for ten years, he kept that vow. He did his best to put his past, his many successes and failures, behind him, until one day a friend gave him a set of oil pastels and challenged him to do a portrait of a local man, the 85-year-old grandson of a former slave. After reluctantly agreeing, Simon rediscovered the simple joy of making marks on paper, of pure creation. "I said wow -- I think I've got something here," Simon told one of the few reporters who covered his return to art, "the whole itchy, twitchy animation cartoon feeling is back, it's back!" Inspired, he began creating likenesses of people he admires, especially Barack Obama, whose historic election shares some small parallels with Simon's own attempts to break down color barriers in the animation industry. He's a long way from those days -- from running his own studio and delighting millions of children -- but he's at least returned to the creative passion that inspired him to dream big in the first place, at least put a hopeful epilogue on a story that very nearly ended in tragedy.

Now, will someone please get this man a Wikipedia page?