WildMindsHCcoverWild Minds: The Artists and Rivalries That Inspired the Golden Age of Animation (Grove Atlantic, 2020)

A New York Times Editors’ Choice

In 1911, famed cartoonist Winsor McCay debuted one of the first animated cartoons, based on his sophisticated newspaper strip “Little Nemo in Slumberland,” itself inspired by Freud’s recent research on dreams. McCay is largely forgotten today, but he unleashed an art form, and the creative energy of artists from Otto Messmer and Max Fleischer to Walt Disney and Warner Bros.’ Chuck Jones. Their origin stories, rivalries, and sheer genius, as Reid Mitenbuler skillfully relates, were as colorful and subversive as their creations—from Felix the Cat to Bugs Bunny to feature films such as Fantasia—which became an integral part and reflection of American culture over the next five decades.

Pre-television, animated cartoons were aimed squarely at adults; comic preludes to movies, they were often “little hand grenades of social and political satire.” Early Betty Boop cartoons included nudity; Popeye stories contained sly references to the injustices of unchecked capitalism. “During its first half-century,” Mitenbuler writes, “animation was an important part of the culture wars about free speech, censorship, the appropriate boundaries of humor, and the influence of art and media on society.” During WWII it also played a significant role in propaganda. The Golden Age of animation ended with the advent of television, when cartoons were sanitized to appeal to children and help advertisers sell sugary breakfast cereals. Wild Minds is an ode to our colorful past and to the creative energy that later inspired The Simpsons, South Park, and BoJack Horseman.

Praise for Wild Minds

“Wild Minds is a thoroughly captivating behind-the-scenes history of classic American animation, full of breezy stories of the great artists who went crazy making the brilliant cartoons we all know and love. A must-read for all fans of the medium!”–Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons and Futurama

“If the twentieth century had its court painters, they were the cartoonists and animators employed by Walt Disney and other creative wizards of pop culture. In his engrossing, entertaining, and deeply researched Wild Minds, Reid Mitenbuler recreates the world of these classic animators―the largely unsung Holbeins and Van Dycks of the Magic Kingdom and at Warner Bros., Paramount, and smaller studios. There’s a direct evolutionary path, we come to realize, from the genius of Winsor McCay, a century ago, to the subversive tropes of South Park. The legacy of the animators is one we can’t escape―and don’t want to.”―Cullen Murphy, author of Cartoon County: My Father and His Friends in the Golden Age of Make-Believe

“In this absorbing history of animation, Reid Mitenbuler illuminates lives both deservedly familiar (Walt Disney, Max Fleischer, Chuck Jones) and tragically forgotten (Winsor McCay, Émile Cohl). The prose is terrific, the insights frequent, and the information fascinating. Mitenbuler deepens one’s understanding not only of his subject, but the world itself. It’s everything you want a nonfiction book to be.”―Tom Bissell, author of Creative Types and coauthor of The Disaster Artist

“An absolutely vital compendium covering all high points, low points and pen points of the personalities who hijacked our pop culture – pioneering a now-dominant American industry, ultimately creating characters and films that have stood the text of time.  A delightful read – like the cartoons themselves: buoyant,  bouncy and wonderfully entertaining.”–Jerry Beck, animation historian and author

“The arc of Wild Minds is appropriately weird, full of high-flown aspirations and zany anecdotes…[A] madcap romp.” –Jennifer Szalai, New York Times

“Juicy tales abound about the films and the wildly imaginative people who made them… [told] with relish and clarity.” –John Canemaker, Wall Street Journal

Wild Minds assembles its history with love and a sense of occasion . . . The book’s governing idea lies in its heroes’ collective intuition that animated films could be a vehicle for grownup expression—erotic, political, and even scientific—rather than the trailing diminutive form they mostly became . . . All art aspires to the condition of music, a wise man said once, and perhaps all cultural history aspires to the condition of a cartoon: a seeming fluidity of movement, made up of countless small stops and starts.”—Adam Gopnik, New Yorker

“In snappy prose, Mitenbuler writes a history rich with personalities. This Technicolor tour de force is impossible to put down.” Publisher’s Weekly (Starred Review)

“A finely drawn history of a critical period in the history of animation.”–Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)

“[A]n exhaustive and highly entertaining new book…Mitenbuler goes wide and deep in surveying the talented, sometimes eccentric, and often irascible artists who developed, nurtured, and transformed the medium.” Peter Tonguette, Christian Science Monitor

“Mitenbuler shows just how renegade the pioneers of animation were. In an era of different sensibilities, they used a nascent medium to get away with edgy gags, questionable violence and the darkest of gallows humor. “Wild Minds” is a journey into how animation became cultural insurgency.” –Scott Anderson, San Francisco Chronicle

“But Mitenbuler’s real target is a quintessentially American story of daring ambition, personal re-invention and the eternal tug-of-war of between art and business…a gem for anyone wanting to understand animation’s origin story.” Adam Frank, NPR

“[A] rollicking history…[Mitenbuler] is able to sum up a character with a couple of quick strokes…Story comes first in Wild Minds.” –Michael Tisserand, New York Times

“[Mitenbuler] paints a delightfully full picture of the artform and its artists.” Christian Science Monitor (Ten Best Books of December 2020)

“An Entertaining and revealing look into the dawn of a revolutionary art form.” Library Journal.


Cover Image Bourbon Empire

Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America’s Whiskey was released in May 2015 by Viking.

Walk into a well-stocked liquor store and you’ll see countless whiskey brands, each boasting an inspiring story of independence and heritage. And yet, more than 95% of the nation’s whiskey comes from a small handful of giant companies with links to organized crime, political controversy, and a colorful history that is far different than what appears on modern labels. In Bourbon Empire, Reid Mitenbuler shows how bourbon, America’s most iconic style of whiskey, and the industry surrounding it, really came to be—a saga of shrewd capitalism as well as dedicated craftsmanship.

Mitenbuler traces the big names—Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Evan Williams, and more—back to their origins, exploring bourbon’s founding myths and great successes against the backdrop of America’s economic history. Illusion is separated from reality in a tale reaching back to the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, when the ideologies of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton battled to define the soul of American business. That debate continues today, punctuated along the way by Prohibition-era bootleggers, the liquor-fueled origins of NASCAR, intense consolidation driven by savvy lobbying, and a Madison Avenue plot to release five thousand parrots—trained to screech the name of a popular brand—into the nation’s bars.

Today, the whiskey business takes a new turn as a nascent craft distilling movement offers the potential to revolutionize the industry once again. But, as Mitenbuler shows, many take advantage of this excitement while employing questionable business practices, either by masquerading whiskey made elsewhere as their own or by shortcutting the proven production standards that made many historic brands great to begin with.

A tale of innovation, success, downfall, and resurrection, Bourbon Empire is an exploration of the spirit in all its unique forms, creating an indelible portrait of both American whiskey and the people who make it.

Praise for Bourbon Empire

Bourbon Empire is a lively, rowdy tale of swindlers and smugglers, connoisseurs and craftsmen. Reid Mitenbuler is a talented storyteller whose wide-ranging curiosity takes us to Civil War battlefields and prison cells as well as cornfields and world-famous distilleries. Truly fascinating, and a must-read for whiskey lovers!”—Amy Stewart, author of The Drunken Botanist
Bourbon Empire is more than just whiskey history. Mitenbuler demonstrates, with clear, witty and incisive prose, how the drink shaped, and was shaped by, the history of American capitalism society. It is a book that whiskey fans, historians and students of American business will enjoy, and learn much from.”—Clay Risen, staff editor, The New York Times and author of American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye

“A must have for every bourbon enthusiast from beginner to expert. A book that finally tells the true story of our beloved bourbon, putting in perspective its important role in American history. Bourbon Empire has it all, demystifying the good, the bad and the ugly.”—Sean Brock, Chef/Partner of McCrady’s and Husk
“In finding the facts behind some of bourbon’s most cherished fables, Mitenbuler has unearthed true tales that are even better than the tall tales. A fresh look at stories we thought we knew.”—Lew Bryson, managing editor, Whisky Advocate and author of Tasting Whiskey 

“Reid manages to juggle his skepticism and enthusiasm in this carefully researched and lovingly written history of America’s spirit. He peels back layer after layer of filigree, searching for the real story, which is as much the story of American business, politics, advertising, and immigration as it is the story of bourbon.”—Max Watman, author of Harvest and Chasing the White Dog

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