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The Marine-Turned-Saturday Morning Cartoonist: "My Calling from God is to be an Animator"

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
June 6, 2023 3:04 am

The Marine-Turned-Saturday Morning Cartoonist: "My Calling from God is to be an Animator"

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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June 6, 2023 3:04 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, this is the story about Mike Joens, a Marine-turned-cartoon animator—and so much more.

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Without any further ado, here's Mike Jens. I am a cartoonist, an animator, a cartoon director, and my story really began as far as that goes that end of my story when I was 7 years old. I was at a little school and I was in second grade and I just remember sitting in a row and looking over at this little blonde girl right next to me and she was drawing trees and she just had a particular way of drawing them that intrigued me and as far as I can remember or think that was the first discretionary discriminatory thought I ever had regarding my cartoons.

She drew trees and I wanted to draw them like her. So that's that kind of began my artistic career as it were 7 years old. From that time on, I just was a cartoonist. Every time I could get a piece of paper in my hands, I was drawing cartoons.

My dad was a career marine, so we traveled all the time. Every year, we were moving to a new school, a new location and you know for me to help identify or become identified as something to to gain approval. I guess it was with my peers. I drew cartoons and that one friends and you know really that is what established me as a young man. I had an identity as a cartoonist and that was very important to me. That lasted all the way through high school.

I drew cartoons for the school newspapers and everything else. I went into graduated from high school and went into Arizona State. I wanted to be an architect at the time and you know what I just really wasn't ready for school.

I was too. I was set free and just kind of just did everything I wanted to do except crack a book and so after one semester of school, I ended up dropping out and it had nothing going on for me and this is during the Vietnam War. so the draft was very much a part of our lives at that time and I had a low number so I knew that Uncle Sam was going to come calling for me and sure enough he did.

However, I beat him to the punch by one day. I enlisted in the Marine Corps because I was at a point in my life where I just didn't know who I was where I was going. I had no purpose as it were and so I said, you know what the thing I know the most is the Marine Corps and I joined the Marines and that was at the end of 1970. At this time, Drill instructor. I was in boot camp in January of 1971 and I remember standing out on the grinder 240 buses were waiting for our company to be formed and the drill instructor comes out and he says, how many of you guys of course he didn't say guys, he said something else, but how many of you fellows know how to drive eighteen wheelers and a few hands raised in the crowd and then he says how many people know how to type and a few more hands raised in the crowd and I remember thinking there's these guys two guys behind me and they said I'm not volunteering for nothing.

Well, of course, those are the guys that we're going to become grunts because they had no specialty. But anyways, he asked how many artists are there in the bunch and there's two of us out of 240 that raised our hands and after the he broke up the assembly there we were brought the two of us were brought into a room and basically told to draw something anything that was on our minds and I drew a bulldog with with a helmet and a machine gun firing at the camera or at the person looking at the cartoon and afterward the guy the troop handler goes. Well, why did you draw that? He says, well, I was raised in the Marine Corps and I know that the bulldog is our mascot and well anyways, long story short that became my MOS my military occupational specialty 1411 or 4911.

I'm sorry and that was a combat illustrator. So when I graduated from boot camp and ITR, by the way, I was the honor man in boot camp because II wanted something to show who I was and the Marine Corps became my identity and that was very important that I excel in something that I wanted to you know pursue and at that time I wanted to pursue like my dad did the Marine Corps as a career and I was then on my way to Naples, Italy and very soon became known in the barracks of 100 men as the barracks cartoonist and I would draw cartoons for officers parties and everything else and going and that that really sustained me again. It helped me to make friends and it consolidated confirm my identity as a as a marine number one and number two of the cartoonist. I've been in a marine now for about a year or so and I just started feeling a great loneliness a great emptiness in me that the identities of being a cartoonist and being a marine just were not fulfilling and one night after liberty, these two Marines basically shared Jesus Christ with me and I became a Christian.

He became my new identity and and believe me it was an identity that was that took and changed my whole course in life. So I got out of the Marine Corps with an honorable discharge. I wanted to become a chaplain or a pastor something behind a regular pulpit and so I went to Bible College in Santa Cruz, California. There I became an English major cuz I love to write.

I love books and reading and such and again. I was like the school cartoonist. I drew cartoons for the annuals, the yearbooks for the school newspapers, etcetera. So I'm thinking well, maybe God wants me to be somehow involved with cartooning as a career or as a ministry augmenting somehow my pastorate, but anyways I went to four years of Bible College there.

I met my wife Kathy and we were married for after two years of school and then we had another two years and graduated. I didn't feel any more as though God wanted me to be a pastor. I had no idea what he wanted me to do so we decided we would call Kathy's parents and they both live down in Burbank area. We called them up and they said they were just praying that God would bring us down to Burbank to do what we had no idea, but we took that as a okay. Lord you're telling us something we don't have anything else to go on so we're gonna step out in faith and go down to Burbank. Well, we did we got down there and I started going around all the different Christian organizations like Gospel Light, World Vision, David C. Cook, all of these organizations that would hire cartoonists to you know to work on their magazines and whatever else.

None of the doors open all of those closed. Nobody was hiring and so with portfolio in my hand, I'm okay. God now what well my mother-in-law Marcene she knew someone at her church named Gleya Vaughn and Gleya was the wife of an animator, a Warner Brothers animator named Lloyd Vaughn and she says well what if I set up a meeting with you and Lloyd? I thought well great wonderful. Now Lloyd was one of Chuck Jones' stable of animators. Chuck Jones was a an Oscar winning cartoon producer director. He was known most notably for his Bugs Bunnies, etc. Anyways, so and Lloyd was one of his chief animators. You can see his name on the credits and you've been listening to Mike Jen's tell the story of his life as a career Marine moving from town to town, finding his identity in this thing called cartooning. He dropped out of college. New Uncle Sam was beckoning beat him to the chase, avoiding the draft by enlisting in the Marines and it was 1970 no less. The Marine Corps became my identity.

I excelled there. He became a combat illustrator and when God beckoned him to become a pastor, well, it didn't work out and he wondered what God's plans were for him. He'd become a Christian. That was his new identity. He drove down to Burbank hoping to work with a Christian ministry, but was denied only to have a door open with the great the legendary Chuck Jones and the Warner Brothers animation team.

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Save more at cheap And we continue with our American stories and let's pick up where we last left off with Mike Jens telling us the story of getting a meeting with cartoon animator Lloyd Vaughn Vaughn is known for his work at Warner Brothers working for legendary Looney Tunes cartoonist Chuck Jones. Here again is Mike Jens. Anyhow, so I'm in Lloyd's house and showing him my portfolio and he looked at it and he looked at me and he said, Mike, you need to be in cartoon animation.

I said, really? He said, yeah, you need to be in cartoon animation and here let me make a call for you. This is back in 1977 and so he gets on the phone and calls the guy by the name of Harry Love and Harry was a an animator at Hanna-Barbera at the time and he was also teaching a night class on animation and so he gets Harry on the phone says I'd like to send Mike over and have him show you his portfolio, which he did went over there and met Harry showed him my portfolio and here he goes Mike. How would you like to be in our night class?

Of course, I you know just a gog and I said absolutely love it. So at night, I'm learning how to animate. I'm sitting at the desks of animators who would animate it on Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, Flintstones. I mean this place is like you know the mecca for cartoonists and I had arrived and it was wonderful. So for the next couple of months, I'm you know going to the class at night learning how to animate and it's like all the bells and whistles in my head started sounding because I had now arrived as a cartoonist. I love to see my drawings animate so I had these five shows that I created while at Hanna-Barbera, the ink and paint department and we learned at the Harry Love's class that Filmation was hiring assistant animators. I go oh wow that would be cool. Filmation Studios, they did Fat Albert and Tarzan and those kinds of Saturday morning shows and a guy by the name of Lou Irwin was in charge of the assistant animators there at Filmation.

He saw my stuff. He says Mike you got a job. So all of a sudden now from inking and painting, I'm now an official assistant animator working on you know Mighty Mouse, Fat Albert, Tarzan, etc. These shows that were being shown on Saturday morning cartoons, which I was just completely thrilled about and furthermore, I was making a decent salary at that point was able to join the union, the Cartoonist Guild and my wife and I were able to move out of the parents' house.

We're supporting us at the time and move into our own place. Anyways, I'm now an assistant animator and I work there until the Christmas season at which point I got laid off. Everybody, most people get laid off at the Christmas season because that's when the season ends and during that holiday break over Christmas is when the producers are trying to sell their new shows to the networks. Well, here I am unemployed and I've got you know bills to pay and I'm wondering, okay, God, what do we do? Kathy and I prayed of course and so I went driving around all over the different animation studios with my portfolio in hand and trying to find a job and nothing was available and they're all shut down for the the season. Anyway, so here I'm driving along Cahuenga Boulevard in the Burbank area and I see the Hanna-Barbera Studios there and I just had a prompting, an interprompting. Mike, go in there and try to get a job there.

Now, why would I go there when I had just worked there earlier and gotten laid off from the Ink and Paint the Park? Anyways, I went into the studio. The parking lot was empty and that's not a good sign that tells me that they're all laid off too but I walked into the studio and went up to the receptionist and I said, I'd like to know if there's somebody here I can show my portfolio to for a job and she said, and I'm not kidding, hold on. Let me see if Bill Hanna is available and before I could register what she just said, Bill Hanna of Hanna-Barbera, the guy who created Huckleberry Hound and the Flintstones and all of those great cartoons that are on television.

She says, let me see if I can get a hold of Bill for you. 2 seconds later, Mike head on up to Bill Hanna's office. So, here I am shaking like a leaf with my portfolio and I went in and there he was and I'm not kidding. He had his feet up on his desk.

There's Bill Hanna. I introduced myself and and he said, well, what do you got Mike? And so, I brought out the five shows that I had created and he was very interested in those.

It took a great interest. We were there talking in his office for an hour and a half and at one point, he brought in all of these studio heads and to introduce them to me and said, here's Mike. Is anybody here got any work?

I know that it's the layoff time but does anybody have any work for Mike? And one guy by the name of Arash Perron stepped forward and said, yeah, I got something if he's interested in doing a coloring book. So, I said, well, absolutely and it gave me enough money to pay for our bills that helped us through the layoff period.

I was then rehired after that was completed. I was rehired by Filmation and I met one of the producers there, Don Christiansen and he saw my coloring book and he saw my drawings that I'd done that I'd showed Bill Hanna. He said, how would you like to be a storyboard artist? Didn't realize it at the time but this was a turning point in my career and if anybody doesn't know what a storyboard artist does, he's the guy that takes a script and turns it into its visual form. First visual form, scene by scene, shot by shot, close up, long shot, down shot, up shot, all of the different approaches to producing a cartoon are done through the storyboard artist. So, basically, what I was being handed was the gift, the ability, the teaching instruction on how to create films.

It was during that time, actually in 1977, when I came up with an idea called Theo and at that point, I just, I thought, you know what? Cartoons are a universal language. Kids love cartoons.

It doesn't matter what part of the world they're from, what ethnicity, what age really, people love cartoons. What a great vehicle for communicating biblical truth. What a great pulpit to be working from behind. My animation desk, my drawing table became my pulpit. I did not realize it in 1978 when I created Theo that it was going to take 30 years before God finally gave me the financing to produce that series, but I'm glad I didn't know because what I had to go through was basically I left Filmation and I started working for Marvel Productions of Spider-Man fame. I used to play chess in my lunch hours with Stan Lee. I used to beat him.

He beat me too, but we had a great time together. He's a great guy, but anyways I worked at Marvel for seven years. It was during that time that I went from being a storyboard artist to being a writer and also for being also being a director of shows and finally as a producer of shows. Prime Time Specials, I produced their very first feature film and I'm a little embarrassed to say this, but the My Little Pony feature film, you may have seen that before. That was me who produced that and directed it.

My Little Pony, My Little Pony, all in a twinkling spring is here. And you've been listening to Mike Jens tell his journeyman story, his story of an artist actually, because this is how artists live. Job to job, in a job, out of a job, fired, rehired, laid off, brought back, but he stayed with it. He stayed with his calling, his purpose, and soon, well, he was about to do his own show. But that conversation with that secretary, let me see if Bill Hanna is available. And there he was, he on his desk.

My goodness, what a moment in his life. When we come back, more of Mike Jens' story here on Our American Story. Thanks for joining us on Our American Story.

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Save more at And we continue with Our American Stories and let's return to our storyteller, Mike Jens, who was just sharing how his rise in the animation industry involved working for the likes of Marvel productions and playing chess with Stan Lee in his spare time to producing primetime cartoon specials like My Little Pony, the movie, in 1986 featuring the voices of Danny DeVito, Madeline Kahn, Rhea Perlman, and Tony Randall. Here again is Mike Jens. I produced Fraggle Rock for NBC, the animated version of Fraggle Rock with Jim Henson. Had a great time at Marvel and learned everything I needed to know to have my own studio with my own cartoons going through it.

I left Marvel in 1988. There was a big change in the industry at that time. A lot of people from New York were moving and buying up animation studios. Back in the earlier days, studios were run by guys like Bill Hannah and Joe Barbera. They were animators. They were directors. Even at Filmation, Lou Shimer was an animator.

These were guys that understood the process and understood the artistic mentality or the temperament. So in 1988, things had all changed and Marvel had been bought out by an organization called New World Entertainment and the the handwriting was on the wall. Anyways, Fraggle Rock came to a close and I ended up working for a couple of other studios. I worked for Dream Works Television.

Then after that, I worked for Saban Entertainment where I produced three shows for them. They ran out of work. I was no longer needed and so now I'm unemployed and it was kind of a hard time in my life because I go, I'm not producing anything. I'm not doing anything.

Nobody wants me. I know a sad story and that lasted for 3 years. But again, I just felt like, okay, God, what is it? What happened to Theo? What happened to that vision that I had back in 1978 about creating this particular series for for you and and one day I got called into my my father-in-law's. I'm not going to tell you what he does, but he has a small business and he asked me, Mike, do you want to work for me? And I said, well, sure I need a job.

So I became a machinist for 2 years working in a machine and I don't know. I guess it was God humbling me, bringing me because I was a little full of myself then and so I think it was kind of a process of God humbling me and teaching me what it means to truly just sit and wait upon him because he is the one who is in control, not me. And so Kurt asked me, my father-in-law asked me, he said, Mike, how much would it cost to produce Theo and I and I'm thinking you don't know what you're asking me. It would cost millions of dollars because the kind of animation I want to do is, you know, American animation, which is the best in the world, but it's very, very expensive. So I just I told him what it would cost for me to do a five-minute promo video if I did it kind of gorilla-like and just hired guys and they're all working together. So I went to one of the animator friends of mine and said, can we do this for 10,000?

He said, yeah, we can do it. That grew, the money started coming in and it grew and it grew and it grew and it grew and we did and we ended up doing 17 episodes of Theo, 10-minute episodes of Theo, 170 minutes worth of animation, extremely expensive, millions of dollars worth of monies came in. Anyways, Theo was produced and and people can watch it today, see it today and go to

That's how they can look at this project, but the dream was fulfilled. People may not know what Theo is. Theo, I wanted to, I created Theo back, like I said, in 1978. My idea was to create an animated theologian. Now that may scare people a lot just hearing the word theologian, but it's basically, he's a kindly English gentleman who lives in England on the Cone River and he has mice, church mice that he talks to and they talk to him.

It's very much using the medium of cartoons, but it's done in a way that I think is very endearing. Now, the first rule in our new exclusive club is that I am the Grand Vizier. You're that Grand Vizier?

Vizier, Grand Vizier. What's the second rule? The second rule is that we won't let anyone into our club, we don't lie, they're snubbed. How about Theo? Theo's a human, no humans allowed, snubbed. That just leaves us only, Luther. The us only club.

What a name, how exclusive can you get? Just think, we can be as messy as we want, stay up past our bedtime, eat snacks between meals, collect dues. Dues? But there's only you and me in the club. Have to think that one through. Anyways. And he teaches the mice because they usually mess up in some way and he will use that as a springboard that launches into a biblical story as well as he will wrap it up in a way that is entertaining to children. If the kids aren't going to be entertained, they're not going to listen to what you have to say.

So in that sense, Theo is a very entertaining project. What an interesting hat you have there, Belfry. It's our official us only club hat. You can't have one because you got snubbed. I got snubbed? Oh, dear. Luther snubbed you. He's the grand fish ear.

Did he say fish ear? Luther said humans don't have clubs. Oh, but they do. Humans have many sorts of clubs. Is this your club, Theo? No, this is where the church meets. The church isn't a club no, but unfortunately people sometimes treat the church like a club.

It's very sad. Others think of it as a place where people who look and think alike get together once a week. Some take pride in their church, but look down their noses on others. And then there are those who avoid going to church altogether.

But that isn't what God intended at all. Here is what a healthy church in the 1st century looked like. Fully animated with beautiful music. The animators that we ended up getting 30 years later were top drawer animators.

Why? Well, because at that time, which was not the case in 1978 when I created Theo, at the time, there was CGI or the 3D animation that Pixar, through Pixar, everybody was doing this kind of stuff. And the 2D animators, the traditional animators, most of them were no longer needed.

Some very, very talented men and women were suddenly out on the streets. And at my disposal, I was able to hire these people to work on Theo when the time finally came. And also we had some top rated guy by the name of John Sponzler. He had worked with Hans Zimmer and with the guys that did the Pirates of the Caribbean franchises. He's a brilliant composer and he was available to work on the Theo series. Every single episode of Theo is scored.

And by that, I mean it's not library music. Typically in a cartoon show, television show, they will create library cues. You know, this is a cue for sadness. This is a cue for adventure. This is a cue for excitement or whatever, danger. And when they're editing the film, they will bring those cues out to help underscore a picture. Not the case with Theo.

Every single frame of film was scored to picture by John. So I say that boasting because it speaks to what God has done and allowed to happen with the creation of this project. I had to wait 30 years, yes. But it was worth the wait. And now I have finally retired although I am writing, write books and I'm living here in Montana enjoying a place that I always wanted to live. But of course at the time when I got into the cartoon business, there were no cartoonists or no animation studios here in Montana. Anyways, that is how I would like to end my little story here and I hope you enjoyed it. I had a great job on the production by Greg Hengler and a special thanks to Mike Jens for sharing with us his story, the story of a cartoonist turned Marine turned Christian who thought God called him to be a pastor and who ended up using his animation gifts to create his own ministry through his art and craft with his project, his love, Theo. If you wish to learn more about Theo, go to and to hear the podcast version of the show, subscribe on the iHeartRadio app or wherever you get your podcasts.

Mike Jens' story here on Our American Stories. Now is the time to flex your footprint. With T-Mobile for business and the nation's largest 5G network, inspiration can strike from virtually anywhere. So whether you're in the office, on the road, or on your PT, not quite O, you'll be ready for the next big thing. After all, if geography doesn't limit your business, your network shouldn't either.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-06-06 04:49:23 / 2023-06-06 05:02:22 / 13

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