If you don't think the world's weird, you're not paying attention.

Did Tim Burton Steal a Credit from Michael McDowell?

I first learned about the book that would become The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy & Other Stories when Steve Bissette cryptically who wrote in Taboo #8:

There were so many, many more [stories that had been completed, but not published in Taboo]: Michael McDowell and Tim Burton’s sardonic “The Oyster Boy,” completed but lost in the shuffle of Burton’s post-Batman career.

That comment was dated May 1995. The Oyster Boy story appeared in Burton’s book two years later, the longest and most substantial piece by far in the collection. However, Michael McDowell’s name did not appear as an author or co-author, and only made an appearance on the Acknowledgments page at the end of the book. Somehow, he had lost his status as an author of the story. This is the Michael McDowell who is credited as a writer on the scripts for Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas. What happened? Unfortunately, McDowell cannot be asked because he died in 1999.

In 2000, Bissette wrote:

My only problem with this collection is the solo credit on the cover and title page proferring Tim Burton as the lone author. This seems deceptive at best. Through the events I’ve just described to you, I can attest to the fact that Michael McDowell wrote the Oyster Boy story; if you’re at all familiar with Michael’s own work, his voice rings loud and clear. I’d sure like to know who really wrote the rest of this book. Buried on page 115 are the acknowledgments, with “Thanks to” a number of writers — prominent among them Michael McDowell. It seems fair to assume the others listed had a hand in the rest of the stories and verse, too. Can anyone out there provide some credits and credentials here?

Here’s the acknowledgments page from the first edition:

(Eva Quiroz was Burton’s assistant through Sleepy Hollow, and Rodney Kizziah has a credit in Ed Wood as “Vampira friend.” Neither has a credit that would suggest having written anything in this book. But what of the other two?)

Despite suggesting that Burton stole McDowell’s credit as a co-author, Bissette concludes by saying:

Those misgivings aside, this is RECOMMENDED, and makes a great gift.

This is the same Bissette who recommended people boycott Marvel’s The Avengers movie due to authorship issues related to Jack Kirby. Why the double standard when it comes to Tim Burton and Michael McDowell?


1. This curious case of disappearing credits on a Tim Burton project cannot help but remind me of what happened to Barry Purves on Mars Attacks!. Purves wrote about his experience here. Writing for Animation World Magazine in 1997, Wendy Jackson wrote:

To create the intricate Martian puppets, Burton contracted the services of model makers Ian Mackinnon and Peter Saunders. Mackinnon noted that, “It seemed a rather brave route to be taking, but Tim has always been a great believer in the artistry of puppet animation.” Within a few weeks, Mackinnon and Saunders had amassed a large team of sculptors working in L.A. and the U.K., who were busy building hundreds of identical 15-inch Martian puppets. Mackinnon, overseeing production in Los Angeles, was soon joined by contemporary master puppet animator Barry Purves, creator of such festival award-winning short films as Next, Screenplay and Achilles. With Purves acting as animation director, elaborate sets were constructed and filming began. “We spent months working on bizarre little Martian gestures and ways of moving,” Purves recalled. “The animation tests were looking good and suitably creepy.” But the newly formed “dream studio” of a stop-motion facility, dubbed “Stickman” was short-lived.

In November 1995, Warner Bros. decided that the time and technical demands of blending stop-motion animation convincingly with live-action were just too challenging a task to be dealt with in the year left before the film’s scheduled release. And so, nine months into the stop-motion production, the model animation team was dispensed with and replaced by 3D computer animation.

Not all of the model work was done in vain. Movements and gestures developed by Purves’ team were adapted to the computer characters. Mackinnon and Saunders’ puppets were digitally scanned and rendered into computer models, while the 15-inch puppets were cast into enlarged full-scale Martians to be used in several of the film’s live-action scenes.

While Mackinnon and Saunders and some of the people on their team received a credit under a “Special Effects by” heading, Barry Purves did not receive any credit at all, despite, as Jackson wrote, having developed movments and gestures that were adapted to the CGI characters. Recently the Tim Burton exhibit that originated at MOMA included some of the stop-motion test footage produced by Purves and his team. Some of the footage featured Purves playing a victim of a Martian raygun. Why can’t Warners release all of the stop-motion footage produced by Purves and his team? Burton described it to me, at a 1997 Oyster Boy signing, as being “beautiful.” Am I the only one who would love to see it?

Purves’ website is here.


Written by David Kilmer

May 23, 2012 at 11:12 am