The cartooning business is an interesting profession. “Cartooning“ is a broad term that covers comic books, comic strips, editorial cartoons, gag cartoons, humorous illustration, and animation. Many cartoonists work their magic in a solitary fashion from home studios, and don’t often find their way out into the daylight. When they do squint their way out of their caves and are able to mingle with like-minded friends, it is usually a pretty good time. It was during a regular gathering of cartoonist friends where I first met my pal Rusty Mills.
Rusty Mills at his drawing board using Toon Boom.
For awhile when I was unemployed (or as we prefer to call it – “freelancing“) from the animation business, I was getting together every Friday at a restaurant in Burbank with cartoonist friends that fell into one or several of the aforementioned cartooning categories. We would talk shop or reminisce about whatever got our creative juices flowing from the world of pop culture. As one of the youngest in the group, I loved sitting there hearing the rapid-fire conversations from the more experienced members of days working with Walt Disney or Bill Hanna & Joe Barbera. There were thoughts and ponderings about why The Flintstones were so great, lamentations over the lack of singing cowboy films today, lauding the merits of great comics, and which C level movie was actually quite delightful and terribly underrated.
Rusty was one of the regulars at those lunches, and as one of the guys, it was a pleasure to get to know him. He was always ready to laugh, and would always laugh pretty heartily. He was only older than me by ten years, but I was impressed to learn he had worked on several very cool projects like An American Tail, Tiny Toons, Animaniacs, and Pinky & the Brain.
In 2005, my attendance at these two, sometimes three hour lunches had to cease. I had gotten hired on a new show at Disney Television Animation called Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. Soon to follow from our Friday lunch bunch were Rusty, Bob Foster, and in season two, Dave Bennett.
During those years at Disney TV is when I became better acquainted with Rusty working side-by-side. Rusty, Foster and I would have lunch together every day. It was then that I learned of Rusty’s modesty. You see, we had been friends for a few years, and while I knew of some of his past projects, he had withheld his importance to some of them. He didn’t just work on Animaniacs and Pinky & the Brain – he was a director and producer of those programs including directing the very first Pinky & the Brain cartoon “Win Big”. To further prod him, one would learn that sitting at home were five shiny Emmy Awards and one Peabody earned for that work!
Rusty created this great drawing on the first page of a new sketchbook I started when we worked together on "Mickey Mouse Clubhouse" in 2005.
That humble spirit is also what drove him to share his wealth of experience with young animation hopefuls by teaching them drawing, how to use computer software (he was a big advocate of Toon Boom), and serving as mentor to many eager minds. To serve all these students, Rusty did so by sacrificially driving 60 miles each way from his home out in the boondocks to where the classes were held.
A little over a year ago, Rusty told me that he had been diagnosed with colon cancer. He was his usual upbeat self knowing full well that he would tackle this problem and win. The initial jolt of treatment was tough, but Rusty plowed through with a big smile and positive attitude. We had long left Disney and were on to other projects. Rusty had taken a long distance job with a studio in Virginia that allowed him to work from home in California. He continued teaching classes, and going to chemo therapy. He would post positive updates on Facebook about his health, never complaining.
A few short weeks ago I heard that Rusty was being put into hospice care. Hospice. That dreaded word. I actually hadn’t talked with Rusty in awhile. Apparently his condition had not been great for the past three months, but his positive attitude expressed online never gave friends cause to worry. Very quickly, we all worried.
Two weeks ago on December 7, my pal Russell Paris Mills quietly slipped away leaving his precious wife Andrea and fifteen year old son Evan who we first met as a real youngster at those Friday lunches many years ago. Rusty’s legacy of tremendous work, a giving spirit, and memories of friendship will live on. This man was much loved by the many animators, directors, producers – all cartoonists – who attended his funeral last week. Even more came to reminisce about our friend and colleague at a second memorial service held for him at the Animation Guild in Burbank this past Sunday on what was Rusty’s 50th birthday.
It was proof that while many cartoonists may work alone, the great Rusty Mills was not a solitary man.
If you would like to see more of Rusty’s work, please CLICK HERE to visit his personal website.
A special fundraiser was started to help Andrea and son Evan. Rusty was their provider. If you knew Rusty, or if you were just a fan of his work without realizing he was the guy, please consider donating a little something to help. You can access the fundraiser by CLICKING HERE.
Life is short, and we have no idea what lies ahead on the journey. The following words from the Bible have meant much to me on my journey:
Proverbs 3:5-6 Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct thy paths.