In Friday’s announcement of Disney working with ASU to redesign the Sun Devil mascot Sparky, the entertainment company would have you see the collaboration as the simple update of an icon it had influenced nearly 70 years earlier. That’s certainly how the university is presenting it. And to some extent, that’s true. Berk Anthony was a Disney artist and he did create the iconic Sparky we know today from university apparel and signage. (You can see a purported picture of the artist and his creative progeny in a Google+ post from Phoenix, Arizona Historical Images; the same photo also appears in an entry on Cartoon Brew that also includes some wartime letters from Anthony and other drafted Disney artists.)
But aside from a persistent misunderstanding that Walt Disney himself created the Sun Devil, there have long been local legends that Anthony was a disgruntled Disney employee who designed Sparky with a familiar mustache in a biting caricature of his famous boss, in retaliation perhaps for firing him. This possibility was raised again in the comments on my post reporting on the Disney update of the Sun Devil character’s looks for use on apparel, in comic books and animation and for the mascot costume itself.
Was this rebranding then a case of Disney trying to take the Sun Devil by the horns, and shift a little-known PR loss from the distant past into the big win column? Stranger things have happened in the world of marketing.
I’ve been doing some research, looking for anything more than whispers that Anthony might have held such a grudge against Disney, but 67 or so years on, there’s not a lot in the way of records pertaining to individual staff available online. (That’s a shame, really, because a former coworker of mine often spoke of a relative who claimed to have worked on the animation of the Wicked Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs — and been fired before it was finished, then wasn’t given credit for his work, which was nonetheless used.)
I did turn up a recent post from former Disney chief archivist Dave Smith, which acknowledges the popular Sun Devil lore in a Q&A column, but does little to demystify the legend:
Q: Arizona State University has a myth about its mascot, the Sundevil [sic] Sparky, that it is a caricature of Walt Disney done by a disgruntled employee. Is there any fact to this?
Juliet, Phoenix, Arizona
A: The mascot, Sparky, was designed by former Disney artist, Berkeley “Berk” Anthony. Anthony worked at the Disney Studio from 1935 until he was drafted for World War II in 1941. Some people have speculated that Sparky looks somewhat like Walt Disney, but Anthony never confirmed that.
However inconclusive, Smith’s reply seems to establish that Anthony was not in Disney employ when he designed the Sun Devil. ASU’s press release describes Anthony as “a Disney artist returning from military service in World War II.”
ASU’s own website also addressed the Disney connection in an interactive trivia game for the school’s 50th anniversary in 2008:
True or False. Sparky was designed by Walt Disney Studios?
False. While many accounts make that claim, there is no evidence to back it up. Sparky was created by artist Berk Anthony. Anthony did work as an artist at Disney Studios in the late 1930s and early 1940s, but was not there when he first designed our playful imp.
So while Disney is clearly working closely with ASU in the present, Sparky’s little more than an adopted member of Mickey’s extended family — much like Marvel’s Avengers and George Lucas’ Skywalker clan.